Combat zones draw all kinds of filmmakers for all kinds of reasons. For Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi, northern Iraq is simply part of his officially nonexistent homeland, Kurdistan. All three of his features have been set at least partially in the country, although his haunting latest, Turtles Can Fly, is the first to be shot there. Directors without such connections can represent wars with integrity, of course, but they frequently don’t. A typical Hollywood strategy is to use a divided nation’s sufferings to unite two Anglophone movie stars—which is exactly what Sydney Pollack does in The Interpreter, a film that’s old-fashioned in more ways than one.

Turtles Can Fly opens with a girl at the edge of a cliff; she considers, then leaps. That this might be an act of suicide seems only one of several possibilities, however. With its misty images and poetic title, Turtles Can Fly initially suggests that Ghobadi’s reaction to the American invasion of Iraq is a foray into magic realism. Like many films by leading Iranian directors—whose influence Ghobadi has denied—this one is populated primarily by children. And, as in the director’s Marooned in Iraq, raucous comedy balances dread, at least for a time. It turns out that there are no major new horrors to come, but that doesn’t matter: The infamies of the past continue to detonate like the land mines that are the tale’s ready-made metaphor.

Land mines and satellite TV are the principal businesses of teenage Soran (Soran Ebrahim), who’s so adept at summoning forbidden channels out of the sky that he’s called “Satellite.” Like the protagonist of some Kurdish Dickens novel, the kindhearted hustler organizes the orphaned and often maimed kids who live with him in a motley refugee camp. Anticipating the U.S. attack, the local village elders ask him to tune to an American news channel (which he can) and translate its bulletins (which he can’t). Meanwhile, Satellite’s lieutenants, Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal) and Shirhooh (Ajil Zibari), locate minefields and defuse mines, which they sell to U.N. observers through a greedy middleman. Many of the land mine hounds in the pair’s employ are missing limbs, although not necessarily because of their current occupation. There were plenty of ways to be crippled in Saddam Hussein’s Kurdistan.

The imminent arrival of U.S. troops means less to Satellite than the appearance of potential rival Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), an armless boy who can defuse mines with his teeth and—another magic-realist touch—foretell the future. Satellite is smitten with Hengov’s pretty, doleful sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif), and he decides to woo her by looking out for the toddler he assumes is her little brother. A shot of the little boy playing innocently with a gas mask is just one of a dozen poignant vignettes captured by cinematographer Shahriar Assadi, who alternates between exquisite dreamlike images and handheld tracking shots that are as hyper as the chatter of Satellite and his followers.

There are many incidents in Turtles Can Fly but not a lot of story. Ghobadi prefers to introduce characters and situations and let their implications dangle, all the more compelling for not being fully explained. There’s humor, as well, though the gags usually concern violence and loss: Unable to afford a gun to protect his village during the invasion, Satellite sets out to rent one. Later, after the American choppers have landed, a boy who’s recently lost part of a leg is offered an arm from a toppled Hussein statue. But the fall of the dictator is no compensation for the damage he caused.

Like Zaman: The Man From the Reeds, the other contender for first post-Hussein film made in Iraq, Turtles Can Fly comes from a region that never had any use for Baathist rule. Yet Ghobadi’s harrowing, unforgettable movie is equally wary of the Americans, who are portrayed as, at best, a favorable accident of history. As in his previous features, the director admires the ingenuity and durability of his Kurdish characters, but he doesn’t pretend that their hardships have ennobled them. The ones who survive will always be scarred—and lots of mines have yet to explode.

Hollywood became the American movie capital in large part because it was a nonplace that could be Anyplace: It had mountains, ocean, desert, and some semblance of urban fabric. These days, of course, many Hollywood films are made outside Southern California, and frequently beyond U.S. borders. Yet they still have a tendency to feel, if not look, as if they were tethered to studio back lots. The latest example is The Interpreter, which opens in a dusty bit of Africa. The country, Matobo, is fictional. But it seems real enough. So does the United Nations headquarters, one of the movie’s principal locations, and for good reason: Pollack was allowed to film in the actual structure, some 45 years after Alfred Hitchcock was refused its use for North by Northwest.

So The Interpreter is a triumph for its location managers, who take us places we’ve seldom seen before. That goal, however, apparently wasn’t shared by the film’s director, its multiple scripters, or even its cinematographer, Darius Khondji, whose bland compositions hardly justify the widescreen format. At a time when a few Anglo-American directors—not including Sahara’s Breck Eisner—are attempting to modernize Western cinematic depictions of Africa, Pollack and his collaborators are content with the old model. The director, who won an Oscar for Out of Africa two decades ago, still understands that continent as a backdrop for white people’s passions and adventures. He’s made a ’70s-style political thriller with a ’50s notion of its setting.

The violent opening sequence, survived only by Philippe (French actor-director Yvan Attal), establishes Matobo as a Zimbabwe-like country ruled by Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a tyrannical former reformer. Cut to New York, where feisty, enigmatic Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is a multilingual U.N. translator. She just happens to be in the translation booth after hours when she hears a voice plotting the death of Zuwanie, who’s about to address the U.N. General Assembly. Cut to a despondent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) announcing his secret pain to the patrons of a bar by pulling the plug on a Moby Grape song. Tobin’s a Secret Service agent, so he and Silvia are about to meet.

As in sublimated romances made with earlier generations of stars, leading lady and leading man move quickly from bristling dislike to profound rapport. At first, Tobin doesn’t trust Silvia, convinced that she’s not telling everything she knows. (Good guess: There’s no movie otherwise.) Silvia is astonished that Tobin is most interested in protecting Zuwanie, not her. Inevitably, he’ll change his mind, becoming more protective of Silvia every time he learns that another piece of the autobiography she told him isn’t strictly true. It also turns out that the pair have something in common besides the fate of Edmond Zuwanie: traumatic family backstories that might be touching if they didn’t seem so manufactured.

This sort of movie is a change for Penn, but the role isn’t: He’s another bruised man’s man, fighting inside and out. As Tobin’s partner, indie-film veteran Catherine Keener is fresher, but the movie soon runs out of things for her to do. The other players—including Pollack himself as the agent’s boss—are purely functional, whether barking orders or blowing up buses. It’s all down to Kidman, the target of frequent close-ups in which she appears fetchingly dazed, her recent speciality. Aside from routine plot puzzles, the only question is whether this is the Nicole Kidman of Birth, who will swoon until final fadeout, or the Nicole Kidman of Dogville, who will eventually counterattack.

Not that it really matters. Kidman is lovely, of course, and a virtuoso of vulnerability, but she has terrible taste in mainstream flicks. If The Interpreter is better than The Stepford Wives, her previous ’70s flashback, she’s still wasting her time here, while employing an accent that’s no more reliable than the script. (Why not cast Charlize Theron, the only contemporary Hollywood glamour girl with legit South African inflection, or perhaps even a black African actress?) Like John Boorman’s marginally preferable In My Country, The Interpreter peddles purported African folk wisdom that counsels against vengeance. But using tribal traditions to seek reconciliation for two white New Yorkers, while giving so little consideration to the victims of Zuwanie’s many real-life counterparts, is about as germane to contemporary Africa as another Tarzan remake.CP