Joy of Madness (PG)<br></br>Nathalie (15)<br></br>The Miracle of Bern (PG)<br></br>The Prince and Me (PG)

A satire on showbiz, death, poverty and fear - and she's only 14...
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The Independent Culture

Compared to the Makhmalbaf dynasty, Francis Ford Coppola and family are an idle shower of under-achievers. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of Iran's leading auteurs, and his 22-year-old daughter, Samira, recently finished At Five in the Afternoon, a feature film about the plight of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Now comes Joy of Madness (PG), a behind-the-scenes documentary shot by Hana Makhmalbaf, Samira's 14-year-old sister. Not that Hana is in Sofia Coppola's league just yet. Joy of Madness isn't much more than an hour long, and the picture quality is so horrendous that if the film were a set of holiday snaps it would come back from Boots with a sticker on every print. Much of the content, though, is head-spinning. The film is a priceless satire which demonstrates that showbiz egos are the same the world over.

It's also a shattering close-up of a country crushed by death, poverty, ignorance and fear.

Samira Makhmalbaf is as fascinating as any fictional character. With a star's looks and a star's temperament, the young woman flounces around Kabul, accosting strangers and insisting that they act in her film. She's a frighteningly direct director.

Auditioning one white-bearded man, she helps to motivate him by snapping: "Was anyone killed in your family? Think about them, get sad, and repeat my words." The man sounds duly miserable, so Samira hires him in her own tactful way: "We are choosing you for the film now, but if we find a better person we'll replace you." She seems like a heinous prima donna, but Hana shows that the threats and entreaties that her sister rains down on every potential actor are necessary in a society afraid of Taliban spies, and where a major film role is considered an unwelcome interruption to one's teaching career. "I've seen thousands of girls, but I keep thinking of you," Samira soft-soaps one prospective heroine. In fact, as we've seen, none of the other women Samira approached wanted anything to do with her. Another person the director needs for At Five in the Afternoon is a malnourished baby. It's all too easy to find one, but the child's father wants assurances that the Makhmalbafs won't kill her. He's already buried three babies, he says, and he doesn't want to bury another.

Anne Fontaine's Nathalie (15) couldn't be more French if it had a string of onions around its neck. Fanny Ardant plays a Parisian gynaecologist who learns that her husband, Gerard Depardieu, has been unfaithful. He won't tell her anything about the fling - "It doesn't count. It's too banal to talk about," he shrugs, Frenchly - so Ardant pays a prostitute, Emmanuelle Beart, to seduce Depardieu and report back to her.

She thinks she can control her husband's infidelity, but she hasn't banked on how close the prostitute might get both to her and to Depardieu. It's an intriguing set-up - and it's no chore to watch Emmanuelle Beart pole-dancing - but a film that seems to be a mine of untapped depths early on is still a mine of untapped depths at the end. French to the core, Fontaine keeps everyone's emotions veiled, leaving an erotic, psychological drama that never strips its characters bare.

The Miracle of Bern (PG) broke German box-office records, and allegedly had Gerhard Schröder in tears, but I have a funny feeling that it won't get the same reception in England, dramatising as it does West Germany's victory in the 1954 World Cup. The triumph is seen by some as the event which restored the country's pride and international standing, and it's a view that's endorsed wholeheartedly by the film's writer-director, Sönke Wortmann. In his treacly, feelgood-if-you're-German drama, the striker's mascot is a 12-year-old boy whose dad has just returned from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp, and the rebuilding of their relationship keeps pace much too neatly with the progress of the team through the tournament.

In The Prince and Me (PG), the wild-child Crown Prince of Denmark (Luke Mably) enrols in a Wisconsin college, because he thinks that every female there gets drunk and topless on a nightly basis. So how come, within minutes of his matriculation, he's fallen in love with the grumpiest, most strait-laced girl (Julia Stiles) on campus? The answer is, I suppose, that the film is a teen fairytale: if the Danish king can chair negotiations between corporations and trade unions - in English, no less - then we shouldn't expect social realism. But considering how far, far away The Prince and Me is from the real world, it takes itself terribly seriously, dishing up frequent finger-wagging lectures on responsibility and compromise. If you want an intelligent depiction of an unlikely commoner/royal romance, stick with Shrek 2.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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