Of love and war

Two very different films highlight the human cost of armed conflict

<strong>Iraq in Fragments (12A

Any documentary about life in Iraq promises certain elements - it will surely be steeped in death, and hard on the eye as well as the heart. While there's no mistaking Iraq in Fragments for a high-kicking musical comedy, it goes pleasingly against the grain, and the graininess, of the genre. For a start, it looks like a million dinars. Its resourceful director, James Longley, knows that a scorched sunset can speak as loudly as most dialogue, and that you don't need statistics and rhetoric when you've got plumes of black smoke dancing across the sky like woolly cyclones.

The trio of stories that Longley harvested during a two-year shoot in Iraq is presented here with only the artless reflections of the protagonists as narration. The frequently subjective camera, as well as the vivid colours and twitchy jump-cuts, position us behind Iraqi eyes - the one place where no news crew has yet been embedded. "Sadr's South" examines the Shia movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers dream of "throwing out the American administration with a slap on its face". But it's something stronger than a slap that they use to punish anyone suspected of flogging alcohol, as we witness in one of those I-can't-believe-they-kept-the-camera-running moments that you usually see only in the most brutal nature documentaries. In "Kurdish Spring", which concerns the Iraqi Kurds' desire for independence, a child insists gently that "Iraq is not something that you can cut into pieces with a saw. Iraq is a country."

Each section complements the others, but it is the first part, "Mohammed of Baghdad", that is the most humbling. Mohammed is an 11-year-old mechanic; in the absence of a father figure, he gravitates towards his boss, who responds to the boy's affection with increasing taunts. It is ghastly to watch, but Longley is just as interested in the poignant paradoxes of Mohammed's life. At the garage, he is reprimanded for playing marbles. At school, where he has been held back after failing first grade repeatedly, he is a giant among children four years his junior. No wonder he dreams of being a pilot: he doesn't seem to fit in on earth.

Saddam Hussein and George W Bush inevitably make their way into the film: Bush is glimpsed on television promising an inquiry into the treatment of Iraqi prisoners. But this is a film of the people, not the politicians. I like the scrappy nature of the stories - the fragments of the title refer to the film-making style and to a country in ruins. More than that, I admire Longley's restraint. A camera can never be truly neutral, but at least in his hands it can be conscientious.

It feels incongruous to recommend in the same breath the new film from the man who inflicted Basic Instinct and Showgirls upon the world. But Black Book marks the return of the impish director Paul Verhoeven to the top of his game, as well as to the emotional complexity of his early Dutch work.

The picture, set in the Netherlands near the end of the Second World War, examines the lengths to which the young Jewish singer Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) will go to survive. After emerging unscathed from an air strike and a machine-gun attack, she joins the Dutch Resistance, in which she is reinvented as the blonde chanteuse Ellis de Vries and ordered to charm the pants off an SS officer. When the plan goes wrong, and allegiances become muddied, she finds herself stranded in no man's land, dreading the prospect of the impending liberation.

Black Book is a rip-roaring piece of entertainment with a strident moral dimension. The taut action sequences are masterfully controlled - an attempted abduction is positively Hitchcockian - but the pace never slackens, because there's always something to worry about. As if there weren't enough to praise, this may also be the first film in which the heroine's survival depends on her gorging on chocolate. If that's what it takes to be a hero, count me in.

Pick of the week

A Prairie Home Companion (PG)
dir: Robert Altman
Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Kline shine in Altman's swansong.

Flags of Our Fathers (15)
dir: Clint Eastwood
What really happened at Iwo Jima? Here's your answer.

Casino Royale (12A)
dir: Martin Campbell
Pierce who? Now everybody loves Daniel.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics