The Black Tulip: Film Review

Well-meaning but unconvincing drama looks for optimism in Afghanistan.

Sonia Nassery Cole's debut follows a family running a bohemian cafe in Taliban-haunted Kabul.

An inspiration-geared drama that wears its hopes for freedom in Afghanistan on its sleeve, Sonia Nassery Cole's Black Tulip follows the travails of a Kabul family whose bohemian cafe draws the ire of local mullahs. Emphasizing local color but often unconvincing in its depiction of social customs, the film will be a tough sell at arthouses.

Cole, an Afghan native who fled after the Soviet invasion and has lived in America for decades, has obvious reasons to hope for an end to violence and fundamentalism in her home country. She shot the film in Kabul, but did so with Americans in key production roles, and the screenplay (which she wrote with American David Michael O'Neill) lacks the texture of first-hand experience: Repeated bits of dialogue about, as the family matriarch puts it, "freedom this, freedom that" sound like the words of aspiring screenwriters, not real people seeing their ideals threatened every day.

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Cole is similarly green as a director, sometimes clumsy with camera placement, but casting herself in a lead role was especially problematic. She's the weakest actor here, laughing her way through scenes in which laughter makes little sense.

She plays Farishta, proprietor of a café, "The Poets' Corner," whose main attraction is an all-day open mike for music and poetry. Quickly popular with locals lamenting decades of war, it is targeted by Taliban goons (who do everything but twirl their moustaches as they spy on poetry readings). Rather than simply stomping in to demand the cafe's closure, though, the cartoonish heavies stage violent and convoluted attacks on Farishta's family members. Before their lives are turned upside down, though, the women in Farishta's family are seen enjoying more casual relations with local men than one might expect in a place where they were, until recently, forced to wear burqas in public.

Extended sequences feature buzkashi (a game in which players on horseback fight over a goat carcass) and a large wedding party; these offer a more convincing sense of place than cafe-set scenes.

Production Company: Breadwinner Productions

Cast: Haji Gul Aser, Sonia Nassery Cole, Walid Amini, Somaia Razaye, Hosna Tanha, Basir Mujaheed, Karim Jaweed, Sadaf Yarmal, Jack Scalia, Edoardo Costa

Director: Sonia Nassery Cole

Screenwriters: Sonia Nassery Cole, David Michael O'Neill

Producer: Sonia Nassery Cole

Director of photography: David McFarland

Production designer: Michael C. Carney

Music: Christopher Young

Costume designer: Zolaykha Sherzad

Editor: Rebecca Grace

No rating, 119 minutes