The 20-year-old Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf’s follow-up to her enormously impressive debut film, The Apple, represents a vast leap forward in ambition and technical achievement, although at the partial cost of her quirkiness and distinctly feminine perspective of her earlier work. Set in the ravaged, brutally beautiful mountain landscapes along the Iran-Iraq frontier, it follows the fortunes of two itinerant freelance teachers who, with blackboards strapped to their backs, roam the countryside in search of pupils. One teams up with a group of Iraqis- refugees from the Iran-Iraq war- who are attempting to cross the mountains and reach tneir homeland. The other happens on a band of boys smuggling contraband across the border.
Both men meet with a dogged reluctance from the local Kurdish population to sign up for lessons. Many Profess no interest at all in learning to read or write, and an amusing running theme is that the blackboards are pressed into service for virtually everything but the function they were originally designed: camouflage, a stretcher, a clothes horse, an improvised splint for a broken leg and a bivouac against the frequent bursts of gunfire and shelling.
Teacher number one becomes drawn to the only woman in the party of returning Iraqis, and decides to marry her (his blackboard comes in handy once again, this time as the requisite dowry). But his wife proves mutely unresponsive to his clumsy declarations of love and they split up as soon as they have reached their destination. Teacher number two finds a single small boy who expresses a desire to learn to write his name, but lessons are constantly interrupted by bursts of gunfire from the border troops and his moment of triumph is cruelly punctured. As in the Apple, Makhmalbaf has coaxed some winning performances, particularly from the very young and old members of her cast. The director’s strong visual sense is also constantly in evidence, both in her eye for the bizarre, almost surreal image and in her flair for composition.

Iran/Italy/Japan, 2000.
English Subtitles.
85 mins.

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