The Irish co-director of “The Secret of Kells” returns to Oscar consideration with “The Breadwinner,” an Angelina Jolie-produced look inside the patriarchal horrors of Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Using different styles of 2D animation, Nora Twoney’s team conjure up a sun-baked world of poverty, repression and the magical power of storytelling.
“Stories remain in our heart, even when all else is gone,” the one-legged father (voiced by Ali Badshah) tells his daughter Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) as they try to sell a few more family possessions in the street market.
Father is a proud man determined that his little girl know her country’s history, surrounded and repeatedly overrun by empires, but still “We were scientists, philosophers, storytellers.” This last trait is the one Parvana has absorbed from her father, literacy and a memory exercised so that she remembers dozens of traditional tales of Afghanistan.
Father lost his leg “in the war.” He used to be a teacher. Now the Taliban, young, ignorant fanatics, run the country with guns and intimidation. He is threatened for bringing his tweenage daughter to the marketplace, threatened for once being a teacher, with all these threats coming from a former student.
That bullying leads to his arrest. How will Parvana, her mother (Laara Sadiq), scolding older sister (Shaista Latif) and baby brother eat? Women are kept, trapped in their homes. They face starvation when Parvana cannot get a single vendor in the market to sell her food simply because she’s a girl and she is not allowed out.
The stories her father drilled into her may comfort her hyperactive kid brother, tales of The Elephant King and the boy who tests himself against him. But that won’t feed them.
In one magical, wordless moment, Parvana picks up scissors and decides she has the answer. Sister Soroya takes them from her and helps. A haircut, a change of clothes into those worn by her late brother and at least she can spend their shrinking supply of cash on rice, raisins and Naan (bread), enough to keep them all alive.
“When you’re a boy, you can go anywhere you like!”
This Irish-Canadian co-production hews closely to that message, the Taliban’s war on women and the toll that takes on the country. Parvana can read and write in a nation of mostly-illiterate men. As a boy, she can sell that service — reading and writing letters, turning what her father taught her into money that will keep her family alive, making her “The Breadwinner.”
At times the film shows itself an outsiders-looking-in take on the culture it depicts. And Canadian novelist Deborah Ellis isn’t shy about recounting the well-documented evils of Islam’s version of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, armed, ignorant thugs hellbent on dragging Afghanistan back to the Dark Ages.
Parvana’s adventures are picaresque with a hard edge of ugly reality. How can she, a young girl, free her beloved father from a prison which few leave alive? Of course, she finds another girl she knows doing exactly the gender change act she is attempting, just to get by.
The parable of The Elephant King that Parvana spins for her baby brother is a little vague in connecting their present-day struggles with those of a boy on a quest.
For all the different cultures it took to get this Irish-Canadian film about Afghanistan made — the screenwriter is Ukrainian — “The Breadwinner” is most at home connecting Irish traditions to Afghan ones — storytelling. The script often rises to the poetic, and if it’s not as magical as “The Secret of Kells,” what animated film of the past 20 years is?
What matters is its feel of authenticity, of a real struggle, and the lyrical way people trapped in it have of expressing themselves and clinging to hope.
“We must raise our hearts, not our voices. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.”
It’s not the best animated film of last year, but “The Breadwinner” certainly deserves to be in that company Oscar night.
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images
Credits:Directed by Nora Twomey, script by Anita Doran and Deborah Ellis, based on the novel by Deborah Ellis. A Gkids release, now on Netflix.
Running time: 1:34