Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame
EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- A fable-like day in the life of a young Afghan girl, "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame" spends enough time charming the viewer that the dark turn it eventually takes feels absolutely harrowing in contrast. Hauntingly effective on its own but getting a boost from the Makhmalbaf brand, it should attract a strong arthouse audience.
Set in Bamiyan, the Afghan village where Taliban soldiers demolished centuries-old Buddhas in 2001, the story follows Baktay, a girl living in cave dwellings not far from the gaping cliffside hole one Buddha left behind. The vacant recess stands like a sad witness in the background of many scenes.
Baktay envies Abbas, the boy next door who's allowed to go to school, mainly because he gets to have his own notebook filled with reading lessons in the form of funny stories. Determined to become a student herself but lacking the money for supplies, Baktay sets off on a mission to earn it. Adorable in her willfulness, she makes a string of transactions that eventually leaves her the proud owner of a blank notebook and a tube of lipstick to use as a pencil.
The story's straightforward charm is abruptly threatened halfway through, as Baktay makes her way toward school. Rejected by Abbas's teacher, who directs her to a girls' school across the river, she is then intercepted by a band of boys whose idea of fun is pretending to be the Taliban.
Led by a child with angry, terrifying eyes, they call Baktay a heathen and detain her, tell her girls aren't allowed to go to school, threaten her with stoning, and rip up most of her notebook for paper missiles they launch at the Buddha already so completely destroyed by actual soldiers.
"I don't want to play the stoning game," Baktay says tearfully, and there's an agonizingly long stretch in which the film refuses to signal whether we're witnessing a tangible assault or a strictly psychological one. Strange, small comic cues keep us from quite making sense of the action, and director Hana Makhmalbaf unsettles us further by sending a kite flying into the scene, subtly enhancing the noise it makes with what sounds like jet engines. (When it hits the ground, real flames trail it.)
This sequence colors the remainder of Baktay's journey, turning child's play into allegory and suggesting likely interpretations for the film's odd title. Makhmalbaf ends with a scene combining the film's most evocative visual image with some of its most dread-filled dialogue, leaving viewers to fear for a generation of Baktays and wonder at the boys growing up alongside them.
BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME
Makhmalbaf Film House / Wild Bunch
Director: Hana Makhmalbaf
Writer: Marzieh Meshkini
Producer: Maysam Makhmalbaf
Director of photography: Ostad Al
Production designer: Akbar Meshkini
Music: Tolib Khan Shakhidi
Editor: Mastaneh Mohajer
Baktay: Nikbakht Noruz
Abbas: Abbas Alijome
No MPAA rating, running time 81 minutes