The Apple Review

The daughter of Iran’s most important modern filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf’s first feature The Apple made when she was just seventeen years old, premiered at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) in 1998. Although scripted by her father and with her mother (Marziyeh Meshkini) working as assistant director, the film bears all the hallmarks and themes that the young Iranian director has explored in greater depth and with ever greater finesse in Blackboards and At Five In The Afternoon, but is still in itself a remarkable debut, perhaps even more so because of the real-life impact of the film.

The Apple tells the true story of two 12 year-old twin girls in Tehran - Zahra and Massoumeh, who have been confined to their home all their life. Their mother is blind and their father is a strict religious man who is concerned about their honour should they be left on their own or subjected to the sinful influences of the outside world while he is out of the house. Consequently the girls have been locked in their home for twelve years, live unbathed, can scarcely walk and can only speak in inarticulate grunts. The neighbours, concerned at the situation, inform the health and welfare authorities who examine the situation and warn the man that the girls will be taken into care if their circumstances do not improve. When the social worker returns to check on the girls however, she finds them once again locked-up by their father. Even when freed, the girls are initially unable to function in a world they have no conception of and return to the only place they are familiar with – their backyard. The social worker needs to employ stronger measures to ensure their freedom and development.

Despite the simplicity of the story and the clarity of the storytelling methods employed by the young director, The Apple is not just a simple true-life documentary reconstruction of events. The film not only uses non-professional actors, but the actual people the real-life story is based on, which gives the film a remarkable sense of realism. These are not actors playing a part, nor even simply replaying events – the girls are genuinely overawed and socially naïve and the father sincerely believes in the correctness of what he feels is the only option open to him. The helplessness and the fears of the girls’ blind mother, her face permanently hidden behind her chador, also comes across with chilling effectiveness.

Although The Apple depicts an extreme case, it is real and symptomatic of a situation faced by many women in Iran. Samira Makhmalbaf draws this point out with great skill and subtlety, never allowing it to intrude or overshadow the story of the sisters. One simple scene cuts between the girls banging their spoons against their barred door and a neighbouring woman watching them while wringing her washing and hanging them over the bars of her window, no less captive that the girls. Samira’s debut film is certainly less nuanced and narrower in its scope than Blackboards or At Five In The Afternoon, relying rather too often on the symbolic use of a mirror and an apple in its representations of self-examination, growth and an outlook towards freedom. The film is much more effective, and in one or two scenes remarkably affecting, when it relies on the simplicity of human contact and the connection of mutual understanding and compassion between its characters.

The Artificial Eye release of The Apple is fine as far as picture and sound quality go, but is disappointingly short of supporting features. There are one or two marks on the print, but the majority of the film presents an image that is clear from artefacts or damage with only low levels of grain. The 1.85:1 anamorphic picture is not overly sharp and the colours are a little on the cool side, but there is a good level of detail and a naturalistic feel to the colour tones. The first ten minutes of the film look like they are filmed on videotape – whether these are stock TV footage of the social workers’ investigation or simulated to look like it, I am not sure. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is clear, crisp and effective, presenting naturalistic sounds with minimal background noise.

The extra features – nothing more than Samira Makhmalbaf’s brief filmography (a trailer is also advertised on the cover, but is not present on the disc) – are disappointing for this DVD as the film could certainly have benefited from supporting materials. There is no mention of the fate of the girls after the film, although the documentary How Samira Made The Blackboard included on the Blackboards DVD provides a great deal of fascinating information, behind the scenes footage and interviews with the director relating to her debut film. On this documentary, you learn that the girls were astonishingly locked-up again after the film was made, but through Samira’s continued interest in their well-being, their development in subsequent years is remarkable to witness. It’s certainly worth picking up the Artificial Eye release of Blackboards to see this documentary, as well as to Samira’s excellent second film.

The Apple is by turns shocking, fascinating and ultimately moving. The theme of captivity and conditions women live with under strict fundamentalist religious beliefs are more fully developed in last year’s At Five In The Afternoon, released by Artificial Eye alongside this DVD, but Samira Makhmalbaf’s debut feature still has the power to move through its very simplicity and earnest concern about its subject. The DVD is well presented, but lacks the extra features that would make the experience complete.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:44:43

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