It's no secret that women had a lousy time under Afghanistan's murderously repressive Taliban regime, but the new film Osama (United Artists) memorializes their misery in powerfully mythic fashion. Set in the early days of the new government, the movie—the first to be made in that country since the Taliban was driven from power—tells the story of a pubescent 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) ordered by her starving mother and grandmother to pass herself off as a boy so that she may work in a shop. Her father was killed in one of sundry battles; the hospital in which her mother worked has closed—leaving the patients with nothing much to do but die; and there's no one else to put food on the table. The film opens with a demonstration in which women who call for the right to work are violently dispersed by (unseen) Taliban soldiers. That rally gives the first-time director, Siddiq Barmak, a chance to show off his * gift for color and composition: The women, their heads covered in violet burkas, are like a sea of bobbing man-o-war. Later, at a wedding party, they show their faces but are fast to flip their burkas over their heads when the Taliban come pounding on the door. Here the director displays his dry sense of humor: Their sudden swaying and moaning is over-the-top; now they look like a sea of Cousin Its.
In dramatic terms, Osama couldn't be much simpler. The director is aiming for a sort of tone poem of repression, the girl robbed first of her childhood, then of her burgeoning womanhood. What you see isn't surprising, but living through it—experiencing the cruel and arbitrary justice of the Taliban through a 12-year-old's eyes—puts a knot in your stomach that lasts beyond the film's closing credits. That's in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a little dull. She's a beautiful girl—at times positively Garboesque—but passive, incurious, paralyzed by fear. She makes no attempt to drop her voice or cover her bare ankles when her employer (who's in on the deception) warns her that she sounds and looks too much like a girl, and she doesn't put up much of a struggle when surrounded by boys who jeer her. The director is setting her up to be a martyr, and the girl never experiences anything like the sense of liberation that most female protagonists feel in cross-dressing dramas.
Of course, the female protagonists in other cross-dressing dramas aren't constantly being scrutinized by glowering bearded men poised to have them publicly stoned to death. It's fascinating to watch the Taliban officials as they size up "Osama" (the name is given to her by a boy, played by Arif Herati, who first blackmails her and then ends up as her protector); they regard the prospect of his femininity with something like terror, as if they can't be responsible for their actions at the sight of a dainty ankle. The film's most fascinating moment comes when an elderly mullah teaches the pubescent boys—future Taliban soldiers—the ritual of washing their private parts, then casts his eyes on "Osama" and is plainly aroused. He says "Osama" looks like a nymph—a boy who sings like a girl in heaven. But he'll be the one to deliver her to hell.
It's the horrific images that keep you watching: the listing turbaned Taliban informer framed by an arch in a long alleyway, staring at "Osama's" front door of as if trying to discern some secret knowledge; the shot of "Osama" against a malignant white sky in the upper branches of a tree, where she has climbed to prove that she's a boy (but proves otherwise by being too terrified to come down); the hard shaft of day in the boys' dark bath house like a spotlight waiting to illuminate the terrified girl. A little boy limping out of the abandoned hospital into the rubbled street—maybe the director is pushing it with that one. It's the casualness of the Taliban's oppression that gives these images an extra charge. The movie opens with a Nelson Mandela quote: "I can't forget but I can forgive." There's no chance of forgetting after Osama, but little change of forgiving, either.