Unlike previous Cartoon Saloon films – which have mixed the fantastical folk-tales with the modern, more grounded elements – The Breadwinner, very purposefully keeps them separate. That's what I'd like to talk about in this post: How the movie uses these vastly contrasting narratives that dance between reality and fiction to explore grief and courage; creating one of the most heart-breaking, uplifting, and powerful film endings I've seen for years. Be warned, this post will contain spoilers; I'd advise you not to read before you've seen the film.
The Breadwinner is a movie of two parts: The visually lavish sequences of digitally recreated cutout animation; reserved for Parvana's tale of the "brave boy" and his struggle against the elephant king. In contrast, we have the grittier, dirtier, more grounded style of Parvana's existence.
Intercut with Parvana's, the story of the boy is, at first, a form of escapism; for the audience as well as Parvana: A simple plot device to take the edge off some of the more uncomfortable subject matters. In fact, it's far more meaningful, and, as the film progresses, the story becomes an avenue for Parvana to overcome her fears and address grief.
During the second act, Shauzia – another girl in disguise, a childhood friend of Parvana's – asks Parvana about her older brother: "But you have an older brother don't you? He used to bring you to school on his shoulders, what's his name?"
"Sulayman" - Comes the reply.
Parvana is reluctant to talk about him; saying merely he died some years ago, and that her mother won't talk about it.
Sulayman's death is clearly still affecting the family deeply, and Fattima – Parvana's mother – has clearly not dealt with it well and seemed to me, to be suffering from depression; explaining Parvana's disinclination to address it directly.
When Parvana leaves her house to earn money and buy food for her family, it's Sulayman's clothes she wears; reinvigorating her brother's spirit and memory.
Fattima regularly, and unknowingly refers to Parvana by her brother's name; providing us more evidence to suggest she's not fully come to terms with his death.
However, after this awkward exchange, Parvana does begin to open up more; bestowing the "brave boy" the name, Sulayman. This seemingly fantastical tale becomes a medium Parvana uses to express herself, conquer her fears, and acts as an insight into the state of her mind. During the more joyous times, Parvana spends with Shauzia; the tale of Sulayman is jovial and humorous. As she recites the story to her younger brother or mother, it's calmer, safer, but also more melancholic. And, as she faces down the horrors of her situation, the story is dark and menacing but full of the strength of courage.
As the film reaches the final act, and amidst a bombing raid, Parvana races to the prison in a last, desperate attempt to save her father. Running in parallel, is the "brave boy" (Sulayman), who is struggling up the elephant king's mountain in what appears to be, a vicious and loud storm; perfectly echoing the bombing raid.
Parvana begins shouting the story aloud to herself as a means of finding her courage. After arriving at the prison, Parvana witnesses the Taliban lining up prisoners and executing them. Placing her hands over her ears, she calls out for her brother and the movie cuts to Sulayman; fending off several of the elephant king's jaguar minions, and finally coming face-to-face with the elephant king himself.
"I have not come to kill you!" - Shouts Sulayman: The elephant king rears up and bellows in provocation.
"Sulayman! Soothe him with your story, the one that Mama-jan can't speak of. Tell him!" - Insists Parvana, who has now summoned the strength to confront the truth of her brother's story.
"Tell him what happened. Tell him your story!"
"My name is Sulayman!" - He begins.
"My mother is a writer. My father is a teacher. And my sisters always fight each other."
Then, comes the truth of it all: "One day I found a toy on the street. I picked it up. It exploded. I don't remember what happened after that because it was the end."
The elephant king roars again and charges down the mountain towards Sulayman who repeats his words.
"My name is Sulayman. My mother is a writer. My father is a teacher. And my sisters always fight each other. One day I found a toy on the street. I picked it up. It exploded. I don't remember what happened after that because it was the end."
Stopping dead in his tracks, the elephant king stands in front of Sulayman: Reciting his words once again, this time, in a noticeably more melancholic manner.
Sulayman has conquered the elephant king, and Parvana has conquered her fears, and rescued her father.
The Breadwinner left me awestruck; almost breathless.
I've seen it several times now, but the effect from those last few scenes has never abated. To me, everything about this film is as close to perfection as is possible to come. Jeff and Mychael Danna's soundtrack is superb and melancholic. The casting is flawless, as are the direction and screenplay.
The stunningly hand drawn and lovingly recreated, digital cutout animation works perfectly together; particularly within the narrative of this movie.
In my eyes, The Breadwinner is a must-see film; a testament to the power of animated film, and is arguably one of the best films of the year so far.