From the title down, It's Winter is about as straightforward as cinema gets. In the film's first ten minutes, Mokhtar (Ashem Abdi) loses his job and leaves Iran to seek work abroad, in effect abandoning his wife, Khatoun (Mitra Hadjar), and their young daughter. No soaring strings on the soundtrack, no heart-rending close-ups of the girl clutching her favourite teddy and asking when Daddy's coming home - he just goes, and life carries on. In the unembellished presentation of events that is typical of Iranian cinema, the film bluntly reflects the realities that its characters face. What lifts it out of the doldrums is the restraint the director, Rafi Pitts, demonstrates behind the camera, and the brisk scissor-work of his editor, Hassan Hassandoost. Not a shot here lasts longer than is absolutely necessary, and we never feel our tear ducts being squeezed, no matter how heartbreaking things get.
In Mokhtar's absence, Khatoun is romanced by the local mechanic, Marhab (Ali Nicsolat). I say romanced, but it amounts to the briefest of courtships. He follows her home, and she doesn't respond with a restraining order, which is always a good start, I find. We see them laughing together in the street. He buys her a big roll of red carpet. Then they get married. Yes, it must be quite some carpet.
But we don't need a single frame more in order to believe in this relationship. Partly it's because we have already met Marhab, who has the unruly charm of a young de Niro. He upsets a friend, who toils night and day to care for his elderly father, by saying, "Once parents are old, you should forget about them!" and expressing a preference for good times over work. With his lopsided walk and raffish grin, Marhab is quite a tonic. But life takes the fizz out of him, and soon he has to confront the same economic prospects that made Mokhtar flee the country. As he trudges past the railway tracks in the snow, just as Mokhtar did before him, we hear the words of Mehdi Akhavan Saless's poem "Winter" on the soundtrack, referring to "the mark of winter's slap on the sky's face". Pitts's film, with its unforced lyricism and its affecting non-professional cast, makes us feel the pain of that slap. It may be a small picture, but its reach is immense.
It's Winter opens on 15 December, and feels rather like an early Christmas present. On the other hand, Kabul Express, released on the same day, could be regarded as the turkey. It starts badly, with footage of the World Trade Center attacks, accompanied by a voice-over that can only be described as surplus to requirements: "On 11 September 2001," it intones, "the twin towers came down in New York." Glad you pointed that out. Then it's over to Afghanistan, where two Indian TV journalists, Jai (Arshad Warsi) and Suhel (John Abraham), have their jeep hijacked by Imran (Salman Shahid), a Talib desperate to return to Pakistan. We know that Jai and Suhel are reporters only because they keep saying things like, "So, dude, are you enjoying being a war reporter?" Without that, we might mistake them for models in a shampoo commercial, so relentlessly do they simper in close-up, their glossy hairdos unsullied by desert life.
As they head for Pakistan, a friendship forms between the duo and their kidnapper. Jessica (Linda Arsenio), a tough-talking US journalist, comes along for the ride, and soon everyone is seeing things from everyone else's perspective. Imran turns out to be not such a bad egg after all. He even likes cricket, and cracks jokes. I think it's going to take more than that to put a positive spin on the Taliban, but it's a start. Meanwhile, Jessica has a breakdown and admits she's in this business to "sell more gore, more inhuman stories". Despite having shown little ambivalence about filming two Taliban soldiers being kicked to death, Suhel nods along sympathetically to this outpouring. His vacant expression suggests he has nothing more pressing on his mind than whether he should switch conditioner to give his locks that extra bounce.
Pick of the week
London to Brighton (18)
dir: Paul Andrew Williams
Breakneck thriller about a prostitute on the run from her pimp.
The Page Turner (15)
dir: Denis Dercourt
The devil has the best tunes in this tale of a vengeful young pianist.
Flushed Away (U)
dir: David Bowers, Sam Fell
Aardman Animations of Bristol heads for the sewers, but comes up smelling sweet.