Afghanistan. The Taliban. A youthful female protagonist, gender-bending for the sake of her family's survival. The Breadwinner is a hypnotic, enchanting animation that has, at its core, the tensest of dynamics, sometimes re-calibrated with kaleidoscopic colours and emotions. Mixing brutal realities with recurring fairy-tale frame narratives, it can be placed alongside Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Timbuktu (2014), Persepolis (2007) and "The Arabian Nights" as a fusion of fantasy with a mode of patriarchy taken to its cruellest, most obscene conclusions, as legitimized through militant religion.
The story follows a young Afghan girl, Parvana, whose father is dragged away by a Taliban equivalent of the religious police for defending her honour. Already we see how religion is twisted by these marauding, all-male militias, who inflict physical beatings on any whom they deign to be challenging their authority.
Soon enough, and with the only male figure of the family having been dragged away, Parvana makes a choice to support her mother, sister and baby brother: she cuts her hair short, and adopts the identity of a boy, 'Aatish' (meaning 'fire'). In this disguise, she befriends another girl, Shauzia, who has similarly adopted a male disguise to enjoy the sensation of walking the streets without harassment, and of course earn a living.
Haunting music and visuals are important qualities of the film, and allow us to transcend the day to day barbarities inflicted on the female characters in particular: the richest colours of teal and magenta, ocean blue and aquamarine, illuminate the cinema screen, as Parvana narrates one particular fairy tale for different characters. At the film's end, we learn how the tale carries its own cathartic value for Parvana, in processing the death of her brother. Simultaneously, we discover whether she has succeeded in re-joining the incarcerated father with the family.For the colours and styles, and the two large oval eyes of Parvana that shine forth from the screen, I would say that to watch The Breadwinner is less a cinematic experience than the opening of a chest of fabulous jewels. I thought it was beautiful.