An Apple with Bite

An appealing hybrid of fiction and documentary, The Apple joins a small group of contemporary films (1988's The Thin Blue Line, 1992's Brother's Keeper) that depart from the insular universe of movies to reach out and affect the real world. It tells the story of Massoumeh and Zahra, real-life twelve-year-old Iranian twins who were kept locked in the house by their father. The family's plight became public when neighbors wrote to the authorities complaining that the children neither had been bathed nor schooled since birth. The release of the film has helped Massoumeh and Zahra and their parents attain a more well-rounded life.

Director Samira Makhmalbaf is a young Iranian woman herself, only seventeen years old when she first read about the girls, and only eighteen when The Apple won the 1998 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard prize (for films not entered in the official competition). Makhmalbaf, however, isn't your typical Iranian teenager. She is the daughter of prominent Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, Salaam Cinema), a circumstance that helped her to circumvent the standard long waiting process for government approval of a script, as well as to obtain film stock, also controlled by the authorities. Thanks to her determination and her considerable talents, Makhmalbaf became the youngest director ever to have a film screened at Cannes.

In addition to serving as a nonfiction account, The Apple (in Farsi with English subtitles) operates as a fable, one that follows a decadeslong Iranian filmmaking tradition of constructing tales about children in order to criticize social ills, thereby dodging the possibility of censorship. On one level the film records how the girls were taken from their elderly impoverished father and blind mother, and then returned when the parents promised to feed them properly and let them play outside the house. As an allegory, however, it confronts the condition of women in Iran, great numbers of whom have their freedom curtailed by customs and laws that consider them the property of their husbands and fathers.

Using the real family members as actors, Makhmalbaf re-creates crucial scenes from their lives while constructing fresh dramatic situations. We watch as the children, as naive and unsocialized as three-year-olds, discover ice cream and then apples, the fruit that becomes a symbol of their liberation. Remarkably nonjudgmental, the film allows the father to explain that locking up the children was the only solution that made sense to him. Given the fact that his wife was blind, he didn't think the twins were safe unless confined. He is also astoundingly unapologetic. He reads from a book that advises fathers to keep their daughters inside lest they be tarnished by contact with the world. Not until a social worker locks him up in his own house does he begin to glimpse the darkness to which he has sentenced his daughters.

Makhmalbaf's own father wrote the screenplay for the film, but The Apple is clearly the young woman's vision. She directs with an inventive eye, at one point giving the children mirrors to play with and then filming the various images reflected in them. The picture is awash in saturated primary colors. Single objects -- an apple, a cup, a goat -- take on talismanic properties. In its most powerful moments, The Apple addresses the fate of the girls' blind mother, nearly left behind when the rest of the family is liberated. She comes across as both sinister and pitiful, and significantly we never see her face (it's hidden behind her chador). She haunts us in the film's enduring final sequence as she stands in front a mirror, not seeing but suggesting that her image has much to tell. (This review first ran on February 18.)


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