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'Osama' a powerful look at living in fear

Some films you don't recommend to anyone looking for an easy time of it. Some films you recommend because they show what happened even as you wish you could look away. "Osama," the recent Golden Globe winner that opens today, is the first feature film to be made in post-Taliban Afghanistan, a country that, unlike neighboring Iran, never had much of a movie industry in the first place. It is based on a true story and stars an amateur cast who lived through much of what they're reenacting. The details are specific to Kabul during the five-year rule of the fundamentalist mullahs, but in its larger outlines this could have occurred (or be occurring) in any ideologically driven police state. Parallels to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and the Pol Pot regime -- even the civil rights-era South and "The Handmaid's Tale" -- are there for the taking. At bottom, however, "Osama" works simply as the story of one unlucky young girl.

We never do learn her real name. "Osama" is what the 12-year-old (played with pained clarity by Marina Golbahari) calls herself when she disguises herself as a boy, and the name references Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden only inasmuch as it stands to raise fewer suspicions. In any event, the girl doesn't have other options. Under Taliban rule, women are not allowed outside their houses without a male escort from their family -- the punishment is death by stoning -- but the girl's father and uncle have both been killed in the wars, and the hospital where her mother (Zubaida Sahar) worked has been closed. Cross-dressing is the only way Osama can feed her family.

As directed with poetic bluntness by Siddiq Barmak (who ran the Afghan Film Organization before 1996, when the Taliban sent him fleeing to Pakistan; he returned to his homeland after the regime fell in early 2002), the film is anything but a profile in courage. The girl is at all times terrified of discovery, and even with her hair cropped short and her face hardened into an unconvincing glare the audience stays on edge, too. Taliban foot soldiers loom around every corner, their eyes aflame with zeal, their mouths dispensing obscenity-laden warnings to anyone not in lockstep with Allah. Because they see only what they want to see, they never quite see her.

It's a different matter with kids her own age. A wily street urchin named Espandi (Arif Herati) tries to extort a few pennies from Osama, but then becomes her protector when the Taliban start rounding up Afghani youth to provide Al Qaeda with fresh recruits. The girl is sent to a training camp in the mountains, where she has to get through a communal bathing ritual with an old goat of a mullah -- a scene that would be played for ribald comedy in a Hollywood film, it carries a helpless, free-falling danger here.

The movie regularly pulls back to give a wider view of a country prostrated by fanaticism. The opening sequence, in which a protest march led by women in blue burqas is dispersed by soldiers wielding rifles and firehoses, has a you-are-there immediacy, and you sense throughout that Barmak is committing his story to celluloid as quickly as possible, before memories fade. The fear that wracks the features of the young lead actress seems on loan from very recent events, while Ebrahim Gharfui's cinematography locates the threat in every smoky wasteland and quiet alleyway. The only thing he can't find is a place where a child can hide.

("Osama": ***1/2)

Ty Burr can be reached at

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