Orphanage, The (2019)

A challenging film to execute tonally, this Afghan drama with surreal insertions of Bollywood-style song-and-dance routines is refreshing to take in.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat
2019 | Afghanistan | Drama | 90 mins | Dari, Russian & Erdu
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity 

Cast: Anwar Hashimi, Quodratollah Qadiri, Karan Jeet Singh
Plot: A 15-year-old ticket scalper in Kabul dreams of Bollywood until the Soviets force him into a state facility.
Awards: Official Selection – Directors’ Fortnight (Cannes)
International Sales: Luxbox

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,766

(Reviewed on screener)

Spoilers: No

Premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival, The Orphanage is another promising step in the right direction for writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat.

Only her second feature, the film is deceptively straightforward, but upon a deeper analysis, it is really about political history.  Knowing a bit of Afghanistan’s historical context (particularly of the early ’90s) might allow you to better appreciate it, though it is okay to go in blind, as I did.

The Orphanage centers on a group of boys staying in, well, an orphanage, where the minutiae of daily life are captured, including friendships forged amid older, threatening bullies, but it is in the seemingly peripheral politics (at least from the point-of-view of the kids) where the film grows richer.

On one hand, Afghanistan’s relatively comfortable relationship with the USSR is portrayed—a sequence shows the children visit Lenin’s body in an overseas excursion.  On the other hand, political change in the Soviet bloc and the rise of the mujahedeen threaten to alter the Afghans’ way of life.

Sadat tackles these through a work that is challenging to execute tonally because of the (inventive) insertions of surreal Bollywood-style song-and-dance routines into a mostly serious drama.

The love for Bollywood cinema by the lead character prefigures these segments (as we would be acquainted with from the prologue), but while this intertwining of political history with the beats of popular culture can feel like a stretch at times, Sadat just about makes the concoction refreshing enough to work.

Grade: B+


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