'The Breadwinner': Film Review

Jewel-bright and heart-wrenching.
11/17/2017

Based on a children's novel by Deborah Ellis and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Nora Twomey's animated feature centers on a young Afghan girl's resilience in the face of devastating circumstances.

Movies are filled with scrappy kids who weather tough situations, but Parvana, the 11-year-old Kabul resident at the center of The Breadwinner, is a particularly memorable survivor. In a story that's as vibrant as it is harrowing, the Afghan girl steps into the vacuum left by her father's arrest and, disguising herself as a boy, ventures into the Taliban-controlled city in order to keep her family fed.

In her first solo stint at the helm of a feature, Nora Twomey, who co-directed the dazzling Secret of Kells, sugarcoats nothing about Parvana's story, even while layering it with a touch of enchantment. She and screenwriter Anita Doron, adapting Deborah Ellis' book, maintain the child's point of view in both strands of the narrative: the brutal day-to-day challenges that Parvana faces and the magic-tinged fable she spins to soothe and entertain her baby brother.

The involvement of Angelina Jolie will certainly boost the profile of the Ireland-Canada-Luxembourg co-production, which joins the ranks of such hard-hitting animated features as Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis in its artful alchemy of personal particulars through the prism of political conflict.

Novelist Ellis based her Breadwinner series of books on interviews she conducted with residents of an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, and the filmmakers have taken similar care to ensure the cultural accuracy of their adaptation, from the realistic backdrops to the use of Afghan musicians and singers (recorded remotely) in the affecting score by siblings Mychael and Jeff Danna.

The action unfolds in 2001, when Parvana (voiced with spirit and intelligence by Saara Chaudry) regularly accompanies her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), on his trips to the central market, where he hawks miscellaneous items along with his letter-writing and -reading skills. A former schoolteacher, he instills a sense of history in his young daughter — specifically, the history of their country as the site of countless incursions and occupations over the centuries. Parvana sighs in boredom over the litany of invaders: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and, in more recent years, the Soviets. But Afghan political history takes on a terrible urgency for her when the city's self-appointed moral guardians, the Taliban, cart the worldly Nurullah to prison for questioning their restrictive edicts.

The apartment that Parvana shares with her broken-hearted mother, Fattema (Laara Sadiq); argumentative older sister, Soraya (Shaista Latif); and toddler brother, Zaki, becomes a kind of prison, too. Under Taliban rule, women and girls can be out and about only in the company of a male, and shopkeepers fearful of retribution won't sell Parvana rice or any other household staples.

But once she cuts her hair short and dons the clothes of her deceased older brother Sulayman (Noorin Gulamgaus) — whose story is gradually revealed with minimal detail and maximum impact — Parvana navigates the streets and markets with relative freedom. She finds a kindred spirit and entrepreneurial partner in Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), another girl passing as a boy. Together they sell tea and take on odd jobs. Plotting her escape to the peaceful seaside, Shauzia alludes to a troubled home life, and, as in their treatment of Sulayman, the screenplay and direction convey volumes in just a few words and gestures.

Amid all the sorrow and struggle, there are moments of welcome humor, too, particularly in the tale that Parvana, carrying on her absent father's love of storytelling, tells Zaki. To set the story-within-the-story apart from the main narrative's simple line-drawn characters and naturalistic background renderings, Twomey adopts a stylized cutout animation style. The tale of a child's courage against a villainous Elephant King abounds in deep jewel tones and is punctuated with circular and other symmetrical arrangements.

That the allegory's protagonist is a boy ties him to the daring of Parvana and Shauzia as well as to the late Sulayman and the tot Zika, a sweetly gurgling embodiment of joy and innocence. An expression of strength and creativity in a world of constant danger, the story Parvana weaves gives shape to hope while acknowledging seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

Through it all, Parvana never gives up on trying to see her imprisoned father, if only to pass along the walking stick he's needed since losing a leg in wartime. One of his illiterate customers, Razaq (Kawa Ada), proves sympathetic and helpful, and the wordless moments he shares with Parvana, as his own devastating losses come to light, are among the most poignant in the film.

The threat of war and its bitter memories are everywhere; not long after Parvana crosses a desert littered with abandoned military tanks, the skies are darkened by new machines of destruction. Not unlike her gutsy protagonist, Twomey moves through the charged landscape with extraordinary agility. Combining gripping suspense with a quote from the immortal Persian poet Rumi, she creates a stirring final sequence from the rising chords of terror and resilience. Nothing is resolved, exactly, but for a breathtaking instant, love resounds more powerfully than any bomb ever could.

Production companies: Aircraft Pictures, Cartoon Saloon, Melusine Productions, Jolie Pas
Distributor: GKIDS
Cast: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah, Kawa Ada, Noorin Gulamgaus
Director: Nora Twomey
Screenwriter: Anita Doron; screen story by Deborah Ellis, based on the novel by Deborah Ellis
Producers: Anthony Leo, Andrew Rosen, Paul Young, Tomm Moore, Stephan Roelants
Executive producers: Angelina Jolie, Gerry Shirren, Mimi Polk Gitlin, Jon Levin, Regina K. Scully, Eric Beckman, David Jesteadt, Mary Bredin, Frank Falcone, Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
Director of photography: Sheldon Lisoy
Art directors: Ciaran Duffy, Reza Riahi
Editor: Darragh Byrne
Composers: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
Sound designer: J. R. Fountain
Casting director: Merle Anne Ridley
Venue: Animation Is Film Festival

Rated PG-13, 93 minutes

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