Professional photographer Mahmoud (Nezam Manouchehri) and his wife, Mahtab (Leila Hatami), a middle-class couple who've suffered the anguish of bearing two stillborn babies, have embarked on a religious pilgrimage in the hopes that their devotion will be rewarded with the birth of a healthy child. They are driving across the desert when they find themselves on a road that, inexplicably, does not appear on any map. A deer suddenly jumps in front of the car, causing Mahmoud to swerve.
Unable to get the vehicle going again, Mahmoud heads to the nearest village, a confusing labyrinth of walls and doorways. Penetrating the white, bleached-out facade of the city is easy; knowing which of the identical doorways will lead him out again is not. Every door opens onto the same vast expanse of desert. Momentarily trapped in the maze, he eventually makes his way to an adjacent fort, where he finds several dozen women and children but only a single adult male, Feizollah (Mehran Rajabi), the resident schoolteacher.
The gregarious Feizollah offers to try to fix the disabled car if Mahtab, a former teacher herself, will assume his duties in the one-room schoolhouse. Mahtab agrees, but isn't sure what to make of her odd new surroundings, which include sweet but typically rambunctious children, mothers who pay scant attention to them, a badly deformed girl, a cow giving birth to a stillborn calf, and an abandoned railway yard that sets the stage for an unsettling game of hide-and-seek.
Mahmoud's day proves similarly disconcerting. He notices the same group of soldiers repeatedly loading women onto trucks, but when he asks Feizollah who they are, the local man has no idea what he is referring to, as he sees nothing. Feizollah also expresses doubt about Mahmoud's report of a deer bounding across the road, explaining that the desert is not home to any deer.
Everything seems off-kilter -- thunder that rumbles ominously across a cloudless sky, unseen dogs whose ferocious barks might well be Cerberus at the entrance to Hades. But how much of what transpires is real and how much is illusory remains unclear. The bright sunlight and immense open spaces notwithstanding, a sense of mystery and impending danger seems to linger around every corner.
Director Raisian keeps the viewer guessing and more than a bit on edge. Different elements of the story suggest a wide array of possible antecedents, from Greek mythology to the Bible to Alice Through the Looking Glass. The viewer half expects people and objects to vanish suddenly into thin air, as they did in several of Rod Serling's creepiest and most brilliant stories.
The actors are all wonderful, not only Rajabi, Manouchehri, and the hauntingly beautiful Hatami, but also the raft of children who swarm across the screen, providing some of the film's most unexpectedly humorous moments. Raisian, a protégé of Abbas Kiarostami (who reportedly came up with a story outline for this movie), juggles the conflicting moods with nimble fingers. The director raises serious concerns, most notably about the position of women in traditional Iranian society, but they seem only some of several ideas. In the end, this gorgeous picture proves to be neither a parable nor an enigma. Instead, it is a spiritual journey -- one well worth taking.