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Shahrbanoo Sadat The Orphanage review


The Orphanage | 2019 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Orphanage | 2019 Cannes Film Festival Review

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Sadat Goes Back to Soviet-Ruled Afghanistan in Amiable Sophomore Film

Following the success of her celebrated 2016 debut, Wolf and Sheep, which solidified her as the first woman director from Afghanistan to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, Shahrbanoo Sadat returns with another adaptation of Anwar Hashimi’s diaries with The Orphanage (which is meant to serve as the next chapter of a planned pentalogy based on the author’s autobiography). Set in late 1980’s Soviet-ruled Kabul, Hashimi’s memories are translated through the eyes of several young boys residing in an orphanage while the country hinges on civil war about to be brought on by the Mujahideen. A unique perspective from which to grapple with the contemporary political landscape of Afghanistan, Sadat nails themes of transitional, self-involved adolescence even as the world around them is going to hell in a hand basket. Free-wheeling and easygoing, her narrative focuses on a happy-go-lucky protagonist and his interests, melding his light escapist fantasies influenced by the Bollywood cinema he consumes with the eventual violence which crashes down around their heads.

Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri) is a fifteen-year-old living on the streets of 1989 Kabul. His hustle involves selling tickets to sold-out screenings of Bollywood films three times what they’re worth, which eventually leads to his arrest and placement in a local orphanage for boys. Inducted the same day as a pair of other boys his age, including Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Osmani), a boy whose experiences will lead him to the sanitarium next door to the orphanage, Qodrat quickly learns to navigate the ingrained hierarchy already established at the facility, despite the best intentions of its supervisor (Anwar Hashimi). Toying with romance heightened by his experiences at the cinema, Qodrat and his peers remain ignorant of the danger brewing in the political landscape despite sudden changes amongst the Soviet teachers who had previously been on hand to instill their culture, language and values on the children.

Working with a cast of non-professional actors, Sadat hones their boisterous energy into a low-key easy-going isolated rhythm at the orphanage. Quodratollah Qadiri stands out as Sadat’s center point, a warm and compassionate fixture who builds an alliance with several of the other boys, as well as with Hashimi’s somewhat oblivious supervisor. Sadat peppers Qodrat’s narrative with escapist fantasies inspired by the Bollywood films he loves, including an imaginary romantic interlude. But nowhere does this congeal into more complex depths than Sadat’s finale, which aligns Qodrat’s escapist tendencies with the interpretation of what happens at the orphanage following the collapse of Soviet rule.

Sadat returns to work with her Wolf and Sheep DP Virginie Surdej (also the favored cinematographer of Nabil Ayouch) and her editor Alexandra Strauss (I Am Not Your Negro, 2016) while Hashimi serves as costumer designer. Leaving behind the rural climes of their previous collaboration, The Orphanage is a beautifully photographed, quietly methodical portrait of 1989 Kabul. Lulling us into a bustling universe marked by carefree, adolescent energy, Sadat ends with a resonant and poetic transitional juncture, which promises another pronouncedly different chapter in her films to come.

Reviewed on May 18th at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 90 Minutes


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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