Stray Dogs Marzieh Meshkini

Cinematic verve and iconographic obviousness collide in this latest from the Makhmalbaf clan, once again training its eye on strife in Afghanistan. Two children (a boy and a girl) are left homeless when their mother is arrested — seems she remarried after her husband was feared dead, only to have the man return as a detained Taliban combatant. Thus the pair (and the small dog they adopt) have to figure out a way to get into a prison to be with their mother, which is to say, a way to get arrested. Alas, the Afghani situation is viewed through an Iranian glass darkly: the kids don’t come off as anything other than melodramatic waifs, cute and downtrodden at the same time. But though the script is a tad heavy-handed and too distanced to be effective commentary, there’s no denying director Marzieh Meshkini’s eye for striking composition and her firm grasp of cruel irony. Just when you think the movie is about to descend into silent movie pathos, Meshkini pulls out of the dive with her sun-blasted Beckett landscape populated by the lost and abandoned. Her visual sense and flair for plotting redeem some potentially mawkish material, coming up trumps with a brilliant and hilarious reference to The Bicycle Thief and other masterful touches. Like other Makhmalbaf House titles, it doesn’t really say anything substantial about Afghanistan and its troubles (a matter compounded by the Lillian Gish characterisations) but it’s not an offensive appropriation by any stretch and offers the aesthete much to cherish. It’s a powerful and witty triumph of sensibility over material, and continues Iran’s winning streak on the international cinema stage. (Seville)