Review: The Breadwinner (2016)

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The Breadwinner is a complex, heartfelt tale told with astonishing grace and visual beauty. In fact, if the film weren’t so beautiful, it’d be hard to stomach, as its subject matter doesn’t shy away from some of the harshest aspects of life. 

It tells the story of a young girl, Parvana (Saara Chaudry), living in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban. After her scholarly father is imprisoned, her family begins to starve since Sharia Law forbids her mother or sister from leaving the house without the company of a man. To solve this problem, she cuts her hair and dresses in her dead brother’s clothes, pretending to be a boy so she can work in the market and make enough money to feed her family and bribe the prison guards to release her father. She befriends another girl pretending to be a boy and gets to experience a different aspect of her oppressive circumstances. She comes of age out of necessity.

Like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, The Breadwinner is the uncommon children’s film to deal with atrocity and war. Its images are frequently horrifying. Young men beat old women, murder is often threatened, and death hangs over every scene. The animation is beautiful, however, even in the midst of such violence. This is not antithetical to the film’s purpose. The beauty does not excuse the violence, but instead, it makes it even more stark and unsettling in contrast. 

Like Isao Takahata, director Nora Twomey focuses on small moments of grace and beauty that feel like a wellspring of relief when set alongside such hardship. There is a recurring bit involving a story Parvana tells her infant brother to settle him, at dinner and before bed. It is about a boy trying to recover his village’s food from an evil Elephant King. It is animated with lightly-three-dimensional figures that look like felt and move like puppets. It is gorgeous in an extravagant way that the rest of the film cannot be. It largely works as a distraction, for her brother and for the viewer who might find the world of Taliban Afghanistan too oppressive, but it is also a fable and thus conveys truth about overcoming hardship, loss, even death. 

Similar to my beloved Kubo and the Two Strings, The Breadwinner is obsessed with storytelling. Its characters tell stories and the film itself comments on the story it tells its audience. It ruminates on the idea of happy endings and whether they are fair narrative devices in a world where atrocities happen on a daily basis. The prominent ellipsis marks of the film’s conclusion are happy, in a way, but they are worlds away from a fairy tale or a Disney film. Safety and security—in short, happily ever after—is not assured after the credits roll.

I remember reading Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner in grade school. The details in this adaptation are different than in the novel. Ellis seems to have more anthropological and humanitarian interests in the story than Twomey does. She based it off the stories she heard when visiting a refugee camp in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. It is a Canadian novel and it bears some of that uniquely-Canadian obsession with the suffering going on in the rest of the world. We were made to read it in the aftermath of 9/11 in a bid to garner empathy for the Afghan children whose country we had just invaded. While the details of the novel remain hazy in my mind, the mental image of Parvana, a girl on the cusp of puberty with her hair cut, working in the dusty market in boy’s clothing, stuck with me. She had to create a fiction to make life livable.

This film brings that image to vivid life. It contemplates the stories people tell about the world they live in, the people around them, and the lives they lead. It suggests that catharsis might only exist in the fictional stories people invent to distract themselves from life, but it is also wise enough to say that those fictions are not necessarily untrue.

Many people in the theatre were left heartbroken by The Breadwinner. They were shocked by how harrowing this children’s film turned out to be. Like the two previous films from the same Irish animation studio, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner has a weary heart and chooses to focus on the sadness of childhood over the carefree joys you get in most family entertainment.

It is a powerful picture, but not easy entertainment. Its joys, for both character and viewer, are hardwon.

8 out of 10

The Breadwinner (2017, Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg)

Directed by Nora Twomey; written by Anita Doron from a screen story by Deborah Ellis, based off her novel; starring Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Noorin Gulamguas, Kane Mahon, Laara Sadiq, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif.