Dressing as a boy isn't safe cover in `Osama'

February 27, 2004

Osama

Rated PG-13. Sun score: ***

The Triumph of Love and Yentl present cross-dressing heroines who victoriously invade bastions of male learning and get close to their true loves. But the 12-year-old in boy's drag at the center of Osama knows catastrophe is near when, midway through the story, the Taliban forces her into a militant Islamic school.

At the start of "the first entirely Afghan film shot since the rise and fall of the Taliban," this delicate child wants to enjoy being a girl. But with the men in her house dead and her nurse mother forced out of work, the family's only hope is sending her out with cropped hair and a boy's outfit to become an assistant to a grocer.

When the Taliban rounds her up and brings her to the Madrassa, where she goes by the name "Osama," she suffers the taunts of thoughtless schoolmates who sense she's in disguise. Writer-director Siddiq Barmak's depiction of a suspicious, leering mullah bearing down on Osama terrifyingly encapsulates a fundamentalist Islamic regime's violation of childhood and womanhood.

In Osama, the boy's identity that is supposed to be the heroine's salvation becomes just as confining, and more dangerous, than her mother's burka.

- Michael Sragow

The Barbarian Invasions

Rated R. Sun score: ***

Seventeen years after his art-house hit about sex and blather in the intellectual class, The Decline of the American Empire, the French-Canadian director Denys Arcand rounds up the same characters and delivers a more profound ensemble piece.

The title of The Barbarian Invasions reflects its view that Western civilization is at crisis-point post-9/11. But the comic-dramatic content - a bunch of ex-mates and former lovers rallying round a randy, cancer-ridden history prof named Remy (Remy Girard) - presents a civilized dream of meeting with mortality among friends.

As they spill out the untidy contents of their lives, they create a nonjudgmental Judgment Day. They indulge in a few face-saving white lies, but they also convey a group honesty that transcends minor prevarications. Their ultimate frankness about their intellectual and personal failures is painful. But it's also cleansing.

Arcand transforms the routine conflicts of the parent-and-child reunion between Remy and his financial-wizard son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), with deft, wry detours into social commentary (including attacks on Canadian heath care) and startling pockets of urban adventure and humanity. Sebastien makes his dad's final days easier with drugs administered by the addict daughter of a friend.

With a smattering of such bold strokes, The Barbarian Invasions creates a vivid parabola out of one man's life-lines.

- Michael Sragow

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