This review was requested by patron Alex Hu. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
I had one hell of an intro lined up for this one. I was going to open with a description of the Book of Kells, and detail how the blue dye illustrating this mediaeval masterpiece of Irish art had to be imported all the way from ancient Afghanistan. I would then tie that into a line from The Breadwinner where the character Nurullah describes how the ancient peoples of Afghanistan traded all over the world. Then I was going to connect that to how director Nora Twomey’s previous film The Secret of Kells led directly into The Breadwinner, showing how Ireland and Afghanistan have, improbably, been transmitting ideas and beauty between each other for millennia. And how even between two incredibly distant nations there can be bonds of shared history and culture. How we are all, truly, one people.
And then I go to Wikipedia and discover that the theory of the Book of Kells being created with ink from Afghanistan has been debunked so never fucking mind then.
Anyway, this is the third film of current animated hotness Cartoon Saloon. Like their previous two movies, this is an international co-production, this time between Ireland, Canada and Luxembourg.
Directed by Nora Twomey and produced by Angelina Jolie, The Breadwinner is based on the novel by the same name by Deborah Ellis. Upon the movie’s release in 2017 it was heralded as an instant classic and became the only non-American film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2017.
But is it really that good? Does it really deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as classics like Boss Baby and Ferdinand (seriously, fuck the Oscars)? Let’s take a look at The Breadwinner or, as I call it, Mulan but Everything is Terrible.
The movie opens in Afghanistan in 2001 where Nurullah, a former teacher who lost his leg in the Afghan Soviet war, is running a stall in the marketplace with his young daughter Parvana. Nurullah makes now makes his living writing and reading for people, as most can’t thanks to the Taliban’s somewhat retrograde education policies.
Nurullah also hawks items to make ends meet, including a beautiful child’s dress which Parvana sullenly notes she never even got to wear. Parvana yells at a passing dog who’s been sniffing around her dress and this draws the attention of a young Taliban firebrand named Idrees and an older man named Razaq who’s also in the Taliban but is one of the cool ones who isn’t all judgey about it.
That’s Razaq on the right by the way, not Nurullah though they look so similar I thought they were supposed to be twins. I’m guessing that it’s intentional because Razaq does become something of a father figure to Parvana so they wanted to have him resemble her actual father but it kinda feels lazy. Then again, they’re both Afghan men in their forties at a time when they have to have long beards and covered heads so maybe there’s only so much they could have done to visually differentiate them.
Idrees demands to know why Parvana is out in public making noises like a human and tells Nurullah that she is old enough to be married and also tells him that he (Idrees) is looking for a wife which has got to be the most fucked up marriage proposal in history. Nurullah tells Idrees that Parvana is already betrothed and takes her home. Parvana asks her father if she’s actually going to be married and he says “kid, you’re 11.”
He says he wants Parvana to spend her time playing and telling stories and she says she’s too old for that now because, as Eglantine Price once told us, 11 is the Age of Not Believing.
They come home to where the rest of the family (mother Fattema, sister Soroya and baby Zaki) are preparing dinner. Parvana bickers with Soroya over not getting enough water from the well.
Now, because I’m completely clueless, the first time I saw this I thought that because Parvana and Nurullah were so much darker than Fattema and Soroya that they were actually different ethnicities, and that maybe, I dunno, Parvana was Nurullah’s child from a first marriage or something. It was only afterwards that I realised “oh shit, they’re darker because they’re the half of the family that’s actually allowed out in sunlight” and I got reeeeeeeal depressed.
Anyway, despite living in the outer boroughs of Hell, the family is happy and loving. But when Parvana teases her sister over her mole, Nurullah orders her to apologise and she refuses. Suddenly there a hammering at the door and the Taliban arrive, led by Idrees. Idrees tells them that Nurullah has been teaching women how to read and he’s dragged away to prison.
And suddenly our story is a survival horror. Three women. Trapped in their house. With no adult male relative to escort them outside.
And the food is running out.
At first the family hold out hope that Nurullah will be released after a few days. Parvana tries to distract Zaki by telling him a story about a young boy who ventured into the mountains to recover magic seeds that had been stolen by the evil Elephant King (insert GOP joke here). These sequences are animated in a much more brightly coloured style and are interspersed throughout the whole movie. My guess is that these sequences were included to stop the movie being so overwhelmingly bleak. But the problem with that is, well, we’ll get to that.
So after a few days pass, Fattema decides that there’s nothing for it but to go to the prison and beg for Nurullah’s release. On the way she gets discovered by one of the Taliban who demands to know what she’s doing outside unescorted. She tells him that she’s trying to get her husband out of jail and shows him a photograph of Nurullah and the Taliban guy just beats her.
He just beats her for like five minutes. It’s awful and brutal and terrifying. And one of the most terrifying things about it is that the guy doing the beating is clearing freaking out and doesn’t even really understand why he’s doing it. He’s just acting out a script that’s been plugged into his head.
Parvana helps her mother limp back home and the situation looks dire.
It’s at this point that Parvana decides…
Actually, scratch that. What I really like about this scene is that it’s not really clear whose idea it is that Parvana has to disguise herself as a boy. Parvana goes and cuts her hair in the mirror, and Soroya then gently takes the scissors and cuts her hair until it’s short enough for her to pass as a boy. It’s all done wordlessly and it’s left ambigous as to who is actually is coming up with The Plan. Soroya? Parvana? Or both at the same time?
Parvana dresses in some clothes belonging to her dead brother Sulayman, and goes to the market to buy water and food. Parvana exults in the freedom being a boy brings her, and is able to win bread for her family like some kind…of…bread…winning…provider! That’s the word I was looking for.
She also discovers that Kabul has something a thriving drag scene when she meets Shauzia, another girl who’s disguised herself as a boy as she tries to make enough money to escape her abusive father oh what a fun little romp this movie is. Shauzia helps Parvana get some paying gigs to go towards a bribe to get her father out of jail.
She also sets up her father’s old stall and reads and writes for customers while also selling off her old clothes. She sells her red dress to an old man, telling him it will look lovely on his daughter, only for him to reply curtly “she’s my wife”.
Razaq shows up and doesn’t recognise Parvana, and asks her to read a letter for him. This scene is just beautiful.
Parvana sits in the shadow of this huge man who peels an apple while she reads. We don’t see his face, but as she reads and he realises that the letter is telling him that his wife is dead, he slowly stops peeling.
Heartbreaking moment, beautifully rendered.
Razaq slumps off in shock but comes back a few days later to pay Parvana for reading the letter for him. Parvana asks Razaq if he can do anything to save her father and he gives her the name of his cousin who works in the prison.
Meanwhile, Fattema has written to her relatives, promising Soroya in marriage to a cousin if they can get her and her entire family out of Dodge (the old Pashto name for Kabul).
Parvana and Shauzia are meanwhile working in a mine under the supervision of some Taliban, including Idrees. He recognises Parvana and tries to kill her but at the last minute he gets dragged away because it’s October 2001 which means “Knock Knock?” “Who’s there?” “NATO”.
Parvana runs home and Fattema tells her to get her things because they’re going off to live with their family in Mazar-i-Sharif (the Venice of Northern Afghanistan). Parvana refuses to leave Nurullah behind and runs to the prison.
Fattemah’s cousin arrives and demands that they get in the car so he can take them to Mazar-i-Sharif and Fattemah says that they can’t leave without her son and he’s all “we can’t wait!” and they’re all “why?” and he’s all “are you crazy? Don’t you know what’s going on?! Have you been living in one darkened room completely cut off from the outside world?!” and they’re all “Yes” and he’s all “Well, good. That’s how we roll.”
He starts to hustle them into the car and Fattemah screams that they can’t leave her daughter which causes the Cousin to snap “Son?! Daughter?! Which is it?!”
At the prison, everything’s going all Attica up in here as the Taliban round up all those prisoners who are able to fight and kill those who can’t. Parvana sees Razaq and begs him to rescue her father. Finally recognising her, he promises to do what he can and tells her to wait outside the prison. To keep herself from panicking as the guns fire and jets scream overhead, Parvana tells herself the story of the boy and how he finally confronted the Elephant King.
The boy came to face to face with the Elephant King and told him: “My name is Sulayman! My mother is a writer. My father is a teacher. And my sisters always fight each other. One day, I found a toy on the street. I picked it up. It exploded.
I don’t remember what happened after that because it was the end.”
This device, of a character within the movie telling a story that runs parallel to the main plot, is pretty common in animated films and The Breadwinner finally made me realise something: I hate this device.
Typically it goes like this, a character tells a story that mirrors the actual events of the movie with both coming together for a dual climax. I don’t like it because it’s inherently redundant. You’re taking twice the time to tell one story. And that’s when it’s done right.
Here…Parvana’s story is just there. It’s just another story within the story that doesn’t have any thematic or narrative parallel with the main story (unless I’m being incredibly dense which is absolutely possible). I have no idea what the Elephant King is supposed to represent. Parvana’s Fear? War? The Taliban? A Republican Party still in the thrall of the neo-conservative wing? Elephants? It’s just a big threatening thing that suddenly stops being big and threatening because…I have no idea.
The visuals and the performance almost carry this but the more I thought about this scene the more I think it falls completely flat. There’s really no narrative connection between Parvana waiting outside the prison for her father to arrive or and Sulayman confronting the Elephant King other than that they both happen at the same part of the movie. So Sulayman’s confrontation with the Elephant King has to work as a climax in its own right and it doesn’t. What was needed here was a devastating reveal that would cast everything we’d seen in a new light.
In this scene we learn two things:
1) Parvana based the hero of her story on her brother.
2) Sulayman died when he picked up a toy in the middle of the road that was actually an IED.
1) doesn’t work as a reveal because who the fuck else is the hero going to be based on, Hamid Kharzai? And 2) doesn’t work because we already knew that Sulayman was dead and this is just explaining how he died. It’s not revelation, it’s elaboration. It doesn’t matter if he was blown up by an IED, shot or had a severe allergic reaction to a peanut. That’s just a detail. The devastating part is that he died, and we already knew that. Now, if we learned that he died saving Parvana, or something like that, something that changes the emotional calculus for us…but that’s not what we get.
So this is the conclusion of the story of the Boy and the Elephant king and it’s ultimately a big nothing. So what about the actual climax of the movie, Parvana rescuing her father? Does that work?
Maybe it works better in the novel where we get a better insight into Parvana’s emotional state but in a movie it’s kind of hard to get around the fact that our hero saves the day by…waiting outside a building while a secondary character actually does the heroing. And look, I’m not saying I wanted to see Parvana storming the prison with an AK-47 but it kind of rankles that this story of female empowerment finishes with the heroine being reduced to a helpless onlooker. Anyway, Razaq rescues Nurullah (who is now half dead with starvation) and puts him in a wheelbarrow for Parvana to take home.
As they flee Kabul, the Cousin’s car breaks down. Fattemah decides that she can’t leave Parvana behind and she faces down the Cousin while Sororya escapes with Zaki. Fattemah’s determination terrifies the Cousin, who thinks she’s mad, and he flees without her.
And the movie ends with Parvana’s family made whole again, and an exhortation from the poet Rumi:
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.”
File it under one of those movies that I respect more than love. It’s beautifully animated and full of atmosphere, but also rather rote in its story choices and walks up to the line of being emotionally manipulative at times. An excellent movie, but falls short of all-time classic status.
Goes for a more realistic style than Kells or Song of the Sea and renders Afghanistan in a far more realistic fashion than those films versions of Ireland. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is bleak as balls.
Saara Chaudry gives a beautiful, understated performance as Parvana.
Wanted to kick his ass. In a good way.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
Well written, engaging characrers let down by some repetitive character designs.
Mychael Danna’s score is gorgeously evocative.
FINAL SCORE: 82%
NEXT UPDATE: 28 February 2019
NEXT TIME: I sense a great disturbance in the Force…