The full scope of what The Breadwinner is doing doesn’t become clear until well into its second act. Its scope isn’t clear when our eleven-year-old hero, Parvana, is threatened by members of the Taliban for not covering up appropriately in public. Nor is it clear when Parvana’s father is brutally taken from his family, in front of his wife and children, and sent away to be tortured in a Taliban prison for the crime of reading books to his female family members. It remains unclear when the remaining members of their family, all of them female, are unable to procure food and water due to the fact that females (and I say “females” rather than “women” because this applies to the youngest of children) aren’t allowed to be seen in public if they are not accompanied by a husband or brother.
No, the scope only becomes clear when Parvana’s mother attempts the walk to her husband’s prison, only to be confronted and savagely beaten by a random man who disapproves of her being out alone. This scene, which is as brutal as any live-action scene in any film this year, is all the more effective given that we never see the beaten woman’s face: she is, of course, entirely covered by a burka.
Later, though, we see the physical effects of the beating, and I don’t believe I have ever seen another animated film portray so vividly the aftereffects of casual male-on-female violence: the blackened eyes, the bodily gashes, the head-to-toe bruisings.
The Breadwinner is perhaps the most important movie to come out this year. It portrays a contemporary culture within the Taliban so inhumane and inhuman that it is difficult to even fathom such a society prospering in 2017. And yet, it does. The Breadwinner doesn’t shy away from the atrocities inherent to the Taliban — it puts them front and center, couching them in its colorful animation style so as to make any of it palatable. There’s a scene wherein two eleven-year-old girls – in disguise as boys – are doing hard manual labor, so as to provide food for their families. The fact alone that these young girls are doing hard labor — shoveling, brick-building — is horrifying, but the film barely even recognizes the horror. The filmmakers allow you to feel the horror of certain other awful cultural mores: the abject subjugation of women, the casual violence against women, etc. But life-sucking child labor? That’s just another day living under the Taliban, with the focus of the scene being on the girls’ conversation, rather than the work itself. The film’s societal critique is casually brutal.
The film successfully captures the endless suffocation of growing up in a culture whose deeply ingrained rules and cultural values intrinsically limit your humanity. The animated image, invoked throughout the movie, of women completely covered in their burkas, is particularly memorable. The effect generated by presenting this garment specifically designed to extinguish a person’s personhood, in a form traditionally associated with innocent children’s entertainment, is chilling. There’s a throwaway scene where Parvana watches helplessly as three Taliban men beat a young woman on the doorstep of her own house for the crime of stepping outside without a burka. The woman cries and pleads: she’s lost her burka and needs to leave the house to procure food for her child. No matter. Much more important to these men is that no woman show her face in public.
Thus, The Breadwinner’s genius lies in its very form; utilizing animation in the telling of this particular story was a stroke of brilliance. The fact of its animation allows The Breadwinner to explore areas so incredibly dark without falling victim to what we in the professional tastemaking community call “extreme dourness.”
The animation is, to wit, good, the imagery throughout magnificent. In its early going (before Parvana’s mom gets savagely beaten by a stranger), The Breadwinner feels very much like a classic Disney film: 2D animation, a story about a child finding her individuality in a culture designed to repress it, inspirational themes. You only realize that this is as far from Disney as possible when young Taliban officials show up screaming about how Islam prohibits women from showing their faces or walking outside or providing for their children.
Perhaps the most pointedly non-Disney thing The Breadwinner does is to have Parvana make a pact with her also-disguised-as-a-boy friend: They agree to meet on a certain beach in twenty years, when war and hunger and viciously misogynist religious radicals will surely no longer be a governing factor in their lives. From that point on, it seems inevitable that the film will end with them on the beach in twenty years — you don’t set up that last, hopeful shot only to neglect it, do you? Imagine the message that sends, the tragic worldview that any other ending would necessarily convey.
We never see the two girls reunited.
What we get instead is brutal and searing and tortuous and kind of astonishing.
I’d be remiss to not call out the one significant misstep here: throughout the film, we get brief, beautifully animated, interstitials. They depict a mystical story told in segments, by Parvana, to various people in her life. Unfortunately, every time the film cuts to one of these fantasy sequences it loses its hard-earned momentum. The fictional story-in-a-story is just not very interesting, and distracts from the ever more engaging tale of Parvana and her family. When the film finally ties the fantasy into Parvana’s real life, the purpose of the fantasy becomes evident, and retroactively justifies some of the distraction. It must be said, though, that The Breadwinner would be better off had it stuck a bit closer to reality.
Nevertheless! The Breadwinner is brilliant, genuinely courageous filmmaking, and it deserves to be celebrated. It should be taught in public schools.