A conundrum: the Islamic Republic of Iran, no friend of Western-style liberty, somehow nurtured (well, permitted) the great humanist cinema of the 90s. We’ll let the political scientists explain that one, and just note that men like Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami have directed on their own, and encouraged in others, films whose stripped-down, but never simple, artistry touches souls around the world. The stories are often about children —poor ones, blind or lame ones —who fight long odds not to triumph but simply to survive. In the past few years, the focus of Iranian films has shifted from within the country to its even more besieged neighbors in Kurdistan, Iraq and the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. That is the setting for Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece, with scenes of horrific beauty. At a Red Cross outpost, artificial legs rain from the sky in parachutes dropped from a plane, and the legless Afghani men race out of the tents to scavenge for them. Because he is also the great colorist of Iranian film, Makhmalbaf makes Kandahar an experience as visually elevating as it is emotionally devastating.