An accident of history has rendered Kandahar, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s startling tour of the Taliban’s Afghanistan, both more and less relevant than when the director made it last year. Afghanistan wasn’t on most Westerners’ map before Sept. 11, although the place of outsiders in Iran—Turks, Kurds, and Afghans among them—has been explored in many films by Makhmalbaf and such peers as Abbas Kiarostami and Majid Majidi; Makhmalbaf filmed his first account of Afghan refugees, The Cyclist, in 1987. The demise of the Taliban, however, puts some of Kandahar’s most riveting moments in the past tense. This is a movie, after all, about an Afghan expatriate woman who enters a country where a woman can be punished simply for traveling alone—a country that no longer exists, although the fear of it lingers.

Most of Makhmalbaf’s films are poetic minglings of fact and fiction, so it’s no surprise that Kandahar began as a proposal for a documentary. Inspired by The Cyclist, Afghan-raised Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira approached the director, asking him to film her attempt to reach Kandahar to rescue a childhood friend who was threatening suicide. That trip was never undertaken, but Makhmalbaf did secretly visit Afghanistan, where he was horrified by the widespread hunger and the many people scarred by land mines. (The oppression of women, of course, was less visible.) The director conceived a semifictional film, casting Pazira as Nafas, an Afghan emigree who returns to her homeland to rescue her persecuted sister, who has vowed to commit suicide on the occasion of the last solar eclipse of the century.

For both artistic and practical reasons, Kandahar is very simple. Cloaked in a head-to-toe burqa, Nafas crosses the border from Iran into Afghanistan, posing as the fourth wife in an older man’s extended family. Soon robbed by black-turbaned bandits, the family decides to return to Iran, but Nafas continues, hiring as her guide a boy who’s just been ejected from Koranic school for faking his recitations. Khak (Sadou Teymouri) is obsessed with money even though he doesn’t really understand its value; after Nafas pays him the spectacular sum of $100 for guiding her, Khak insists that she give him another buck for a ring he’s slipped from a skeleton’s finger.

The course of Nafas’ travels is unapologetically didactic. She encounters a group of little girls who are being warned about bombs disguised as dolls, two Polish Red Cross workers who dispense prosthetic legs to sometimes ungrateful land-mine victims, a wedding party whose women are searched and divested of such subversive objects as a book and a violin, and an English-speaking doctor who says that the people of his village need not medicine but bread. “Weapons are the only modern thing in Afghanistan,” explains the doctor, who has a secret identity of his own, but Kandahar’s universe is both parochial and internationalist. Much of the dialogue is in English, and the film’s most powerful image comes when artificial legs begin floating down from heaven—and some relief agency’s unseen airplane.

With their evanescent inspirations and reliance on nonprofessional actors, Makhmalbaf’s films often depend on serendipity. Kandahar, however, was not blessed by fortune. Shooting in and around a small Iranian town in the desert near the Afghan border, the production crew was harassed, and the director received a death threat. (Like his main characters, Makhmalbaf was forced to wear a disguise.) Filming was interrupted periodically while the crew took starving refugees to hospitals. The strain shows in such technical problems as imprecise dubbing, although the images—sand and adobe set off by the brightly colored sacks we know are women—are impeccable. Most discordant are the stiff performances and off-key improvised dialogue, perhaps more noticeable here than in other Makhmalbaf films because so much of the talk is in English rather than Farsi.

Dialogue is usually not that important in Makhmalbaf’s work, though, and certainly can’t compete with this film’s vivid, painful, indelible pictures. Everyone now knows where Afghanistan is, but in its quiet, lyrical way, Kandahar reveals a country that CNN will never glimpse.

It’s been 25 years since Nashville, but Robert Altman still has the clout to bring vast numbers of name actors together to do, well, not very much. Essentially an Agatha Christie murder dramedy embroidered with a bit of class resentment, Altman’s Gosford Park is a massive apparatus constructed to present a mystery it doesn’t care about and to purvey a social critique we already accept. Still, this slight film is entirely watchable, thanks to a decorative scheme that matches antique trappings and mores to venerable stars of the British stage and screen; all persuasively evoke the vanished demimonde of the English country house circa 1932.

The rich were different from you and me, Julian Fellowes’ script reveals: They were beastly to their servants. The household of victim-in-waiting Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) is full of butlers, cooks, maids, and valets to mistreat, including Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), Jennings (Alan Bates), Probert (Derek Jacobi), George (Richard E. Grant), and Dorothy (Sophie Thompson). There’s also the recklessly feisty Elsie (Emily Watson), who actually likes her lecherous old boss, although perhaps not as much as his wife, Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), hates him.

A weekend shooting party brings in a whole new crowd of people who might want to kill Sir William, including overbearing but financially dependent Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith); the blackmailing Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby); and Sir William’s arrogant brother-in-law, Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance). For entertainment, the company includes gay Jewish Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban, who with Altman conceived the film’s basic scenario), in Britain to research his new movie, Charlie Chan in London, and Weissman’s friend Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), a Welsh-Italian singer-songwriter who’s an actual historical figure. The guests bring along a number of potentially suspect servants, including bitter Robert (Clive Owen), inexperienced Mary (Kelly Macdonald), and Henry (Ryan Phillippe), who claims to be Weissman’s Scottish-bred valet.

As Altman sets the scene with obsolete customs, submerged animosities, and incongruous four-letter words, he amuses himself with ostentatious shots of poison bottles and knife sets with one blade missing. The characters, meanwhile, are diverted by Novello’s jaunty songs and the bisexual bed-hopping of Henry, who is not what he claims to be. The murder itself is perfunctory, as is the character of blithering, regularly interrupted Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry), who arrives to ascertain the culprit. An array of mysteries are solved in the aftermath of the killing, although not by Inspector Thompson and not exactly the crime itself. Whodunit? Round up the usual class systems. CP