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Friday, April 24, 2009

'Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame'

All she wants to do is to learn at school

H ollywood has the Coppola family as its iconic tribe of auteurs, bound together by blood and talent. The Middle East has the Makhmalbaf Family, helmed by Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf — the patriarchal founder of that country's first film school. His family are all graduates of the Makhmalbaf Film School: his wife, Marziyeh (screenwriter and director), his two daughters, Samira and Hana (ditto), and his son, Maysam (photographer and producer).

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
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Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame
School dreams: Nikbakht Noruz in "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame"

Director: Hana Makhmalbaf
Running time: 81 minutes
Language: Dari
Now showing (April 24, 2009)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In 1998, Samira made an astounding feature debut with "Apple" at the age of 21, and now her sister, Hana, who at 19 was the youngest filmmaker in the Makhmalbaf clan, has delivered "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame," a provocatively titled fable depicting the ugliness of a world ripped to shreds by war and terrorism.

Hana worked from a screenplay cowritten by her mother, and as with most other films that bear the Makhmalbaf label, "Buddha" is a familial production (Maysam is the producer and her father the supervising consultant) that has the feel of a hand-crafted school project. There's a brazen straightforwardness in the way Hana tells the story, and many of her images are as blunt and crude as a clay figurine slapped together by a child. This enhances rather than undermines the film's jagged, ungoverned beauty; every frame trembles with savage, repressed energy and radiates outraged emotion. In one scene, for example, a little boy falls into a nasty trap concocted from desert sand and water. When he finally manages to stand up, every inch of him is caked in mud and his desperate face (eyes blinking out from brown grit) resembles a sad, misshapen Buddha.

The boy's clay-covered face links directly to footage of the notorious 2001 Taliban bombing of the giant Buddha statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan that is inserted at the beginning and end of the film like entrance and exit gates. Hana doesn't flinch at the obviousness of her tactic: She has a message to deliver, and it's as if she doesn't want to trust the audience to pick up on any subtleties. The film, however, has none of the political pushiness of some of the works of veteran Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami ("The Taste of Cherries," "Ten"). Rather, there's a poignant, comical sweetness here, generated mainly by the presence of 6-year-old Nikbakht Noruz.

Noruz plays Baktay, a little girl living in a cave in Bamyan with her mother and baby sister. One morning, fascinated by the stories of school told to her by a neighboring boy, Abbas (Abbas Alijome), Baktay decides she too must go to this wonderful place where she can write things and listen to fairy tales. Abbas tells her the requirements: a notebook and a pencil. With her mother gone to procure some water, Baktay embarks on a journey to the marketplace to sell four eggs and buy these necessities. But one step out of her cave Baktay discovers how hostile the outside world can be; the dizzily high footpaths are full of deep, vicious crevices, the dusty streets are loud with scowling men who tell her to buzz off. By the time she has managed to purchase a pathetically thin notebook, Abbas is already on his way to school, so Baktay quickly swipes her mother's lipstick to use as a pen, and joins her friend.

When they make it to the school, Baktay is in for a major disappointment — Abbas is scolded and thrown out by a pompous teacher, and she is shooed away for being female. Undeterred, she tries to make her way across the rock-strewn desert to a girls' school, but is "arrested" by a group of boys playing at being soldiers with frightening accuracy. "I don't like being executed, I just want to go to school," pleads Baktay, but her captors aim rifles made from sticks and accuse her, with ferocious venom, of being a both American and a terrorist. Baktay, whose nose is always running because of the desert wind and her tears, wipes at her face with the edge of her burqa and tries to reason with them. But their yelling obliterates her voice, and just as the Taliban had been fond of doing, they pull a paper bag over her head and march her up a hill.

In the production notes there's a photo of Hana hugging Nikbakht Noruz to her chest with the urgency of a mother protecting her baby from a brutish, inescapable reality. Noruz faces the camera, her nose running, her eyes somber. Buddha's thoughts and inclinations aside, that shot alone is painfully humbling — a reminder that children have no choice but to live in a world constructed by adults, most of whom don't have the decency to feel any shame.

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