Certainly the appearance at this historical moment of a picture titled “Kandahar”–a name that a few months ago would have meant little to most Americans–can be considered fortuitous, at least by its distributor. A new film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, moreover, is bound to be of interest to discerning viewers–the Iranian writer-director has produced an impressive body of work over nearly two decades. The fact that “Kandahar” deals with the repression of women under strict Islamic regulation is also of significance. Not only is it a subject of enormous importance and topicality, but it’s one that other Iranian filmmakers have treated with exceptional power in such recent pictures as “The Day I Became A Woman” (which Makhmalbaf wrote) and “The Circle.”

Nonetheless “Kandahar” is a disappointment. One might say that because of its historical import and seriousness of purpose, it’s a film that one’s almost obligated to see. Unfortunately, while one can easily respect the noble intentions behind it, one has to admit that purely as a work of cinema, it doesn’t equal the best of recent Iranian films.

Based on a true story (but very much fictionalized), “Kandahar” deals with Nefas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan woman long resident in the west who returns furtively to her Taliban- controlled homeland in an attempt to reach Kandahar and persuade her despairing sister not to commit suicide–as she’d indicated she’d do–during the next solar eclipse. Since women aren’t allowed to travel alone in Afghanistan, Nefas is forced to seek help from men along the way–a refugee traveling with his family, a youngster just expelled from school by the local mullah, an African-American posing as a local physician, a con-man who dresses in a burga to travel undetected. The last of these winds up with Nefas in a wedding party walking to Kandahar that’s stopped by Taliban soldiers.

The picture was made under extremely difficult circumstances–almost secretly in a remote part of the Irarian-Afghanistan border after permission to shoot in Pakistan was denied–and makes use of untrained performers and largely improvised scenes and dialogue. And imbedded in it are moments of undeniable power–a sequence inside a school devoted to the recitation of the Koran, a scene showing how a male doctor can examine a woman only by conversing with a mediator and peeking through a small hole in a curtain, and most notably, repeated inserts showing one- legged men (their limbs lost to land mines) scrambling after prosthetics dropped from passing helicopters. At these times, the film is reminiscent of the classics of the Italian neo-realist movement. The problem is that this excellent material is never successfully shaped into a compelling whole. Most of “Kandahar” feels clumsy and distended, with flat dialogue recitation and unfocused, repetitive shots; it proceeds in fits and starts, and the direction and editing never manage to impose a successful rhythm on either the images or the conversation. The acting, moreover, remains distinctly amateurish.

One has to admire Makhmalbaf’s purposes and determination in making the picture, and also recognize the result’s significance as an historical document of life under a regime which has recently passed away. As a dramatic work, however, “Kandahar” is too flawed to take a place among the recent jewels of Iranian cinema.