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Osama (February 18/04)

Osama is, as virtually every other review has noted, the first film to be shot in post-Taliban Afghanistan - and while there's no denying the significance of that achievement, it doesn't change the fact that the film simply isn't that good. Though it is impressive on a technical level, the movie doesn't entirely work in terms of involving the audience (hard as the filmmakers try).

The simple story follows a young Afghani girl (played by Marina Golbahari) who's forced to assume the identity of a boy in order to support her mother and grandmother (all the male members of the family are dead). Her hair is cropped and she assumes the name Osama, and quickly lands a job as an assistant to a store owner. Things go awry when all the boys in her village are corralled and sent to a religious school which also operates as a Taliban boot camp.

While Osama does a fantastic job of showing us just how awful conditions were under the Taliban, the film's lack of a compelling narrative eventually undermines the positive elements (not to mention their lasting effectiveness). Writer/director Siddiq Barmak clearly has an agenda here, and who can blame him? The reprehensible manner in which the Taliban treated its citizens - particularly the women - is oftentimes hard to take, especially when young children are involved. And in that respect, the movie works. If Barmak's goal was to inform the rest of the world the shocking nature of the Taliban regime, he's undoubtedly succeeded.

But in terms of keeping us entertained throughout the film's 82 minutes, Barmak doesn't fare nearly as well. Though the titular character's plight is certainly one worth sympathizing with, the movie's unrelentingly bleak tone eventually becomes overwhelming (which was likely the point, but still). As unusual a complaint as this may seem - especially when you consider where the film is set - Osama isn't nearly as fascinating as Barmak clearly believes it to be. The disjointed style employed by the director doesn't help matters; the movie lurches from one vignette to another, tenuously held together by the central character. And while Golbahari's performance is undeniably quite impressive, it's just not enough to keep us engaged.

There is exactly one riveting sequence in the film that almost makes one forget everything that came before it: set in a primitive outdoor court, a judge makes decisions according to his whim - while lying comfortably on a futon of some kind. That, unlike an earlier moment that finds a leering old man teaching the boys how to bathe, manages to enthrall us without resorting to unpleasantness. Finally, the movie ends on a decidedly downbeat note - which isn't all that surprising, really - but Barmak mucks up what should have been a heartbreaking conclusion by beating us over the head with heavy handed visuals.

Osama unquestionably deals with an important issue, but the sad truth is that potential viewers would be far better off watching a documentary on the rise and fall of the Taliban.

out of

© David Nusair