- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“Osama,” named best foreign language film of 2003 at the Golden Globes (but not nominated for an Academy Award in the same category), is the first indigenous movie shot in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Unfortunately, not even a smattering of cultural familiarity is likely to intercede on behalf of “Osama” as it unfolds, leaving a distinctive but also perplexing blend of impressions: sinister, antic and makeshift.

Directed in and around Kabul by Siddiq Barmak, who had some experience with dramatic shorts during the 1980s but has only one feature, a video documentary, to his credit, “Osama” was subsidized to a considerable extent by colleagues in Iran. The equipment and laboratory services, for example, were fraternal donations from Tehran.

Set during the period of Taliban rule, the scenario depicts the plight of a terrified 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) who is disguised as a lad piously named Osama in order to be useful to her mother (Zubaida Sahar), a widowed nurse no longer allowed to hold a job.

After cursing her failure to have a son, the woman consents to an imposture suggested by a granny, whose appetite for mischief far exceeds that of the relatives who take her advice. The girl’s hair is shorn, and the braids are hidden in a flower pot. A sympathetic grocer agrees to employ her at such tasks as stirring the milk cauldron. He vanishes, and the false Osama is swept into the ranks of boys being tutored at the local madrassa and drilled in elementary military skills. One brash, mercenary boy seems to develop a protective fondness, but Osama herself has no flair for deception. It’s never certain why she wouldn’t be betrayed promptly by neighbors or other youngsters who must have known her since infancy.

Unlike the customary child protagonist of a movie, the girl is not spunky or resourceful. She’s a completely helpless orphan of the despotic storm. Exposed and imprisoned, she is “saved” only by the lechery of a grizzled mullah who wants to add her to his harem. Our last glimpse of her is bizarrely, sardonically medieval: The master is offering her a choice from his collection of chastity belts.

The elements of deadpan or gallows humor in Mr. Barmak’s presentation have a strange ring in this social setting. The funny stuff also tends to accentuate the dirty old man, ironically fixated on the importance of bathing. We first encounter him instructing the boys in the proper forms of ritual bathing, including the prescribed methods of cleansing the genitals.

This episode seems likely to unmask Osama long before the plot is quite ready to abandon the idea that she can fool her peers. The instructor perceives her as the closest living thing to a heavenly nymph. Despite the prevailing bleak context, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that all the boys seem to regard the bathing lessons as pretty hilarious. Or that the old nymph-chaser is one for the books.

It’s conceivable that the Afghan approach to humorous incongruity takes some getting used to. The girl is at the mercy of gruesome alternatives: summary execution or concubinage. Being the apple of the mullah’s eye scarcely promises a free ride in the harem, already seething with resentment before she arrives. The movie may have a primal terror element for modern women prepared to count their blessings. Here’s a glimpse of what authentic, antiquated sexual bondage might look like.

*1/2

TITLE: “Osama”

RATING: PG-13 (Sinister thematic elements, including episodes about the captivity and sexual exploitation of an adolescent girl.)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. Cinematography by Ebrahim Ghafuri. Sets by Akbar Meshkini. Sound by Behrouz Shahamat and Farokh Fadai. Music by Mohammad Reza Darwishi. In Pashto dialect with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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