According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to security in case they cannot earn money by themselves. Also, mothers and children deserve special care and help. To us in the West, this seems perfectly normal. Why even mention it? But in many countries, it’s the exact opposite: people will take you for a fool if you even mention the government helping someone out. The Breadwinner (2017) tells the story of a young girl in such a country.
In 2000, Deborah Ellis wrote the story of Parvana, a young girl living in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. When her father is arrested, she has to earn money for her family. The 2017 movie stays close to the book, managing to make it feel familiar and new at the same time.
Parvana lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime around 2003. The Taliban governs the city. They have forbidden women to go outside without a male chaperone and a covered face. All female education has been brought to a halt. When her father is arrested, only Parvana can pull off being disguised as a boy. So, she goes out to earn her daily bread.
Woven throughout the movie’s story is another story told by Parvana. Although I usually like that trope, this story didn’t really make sense until the end of the movie, and even then the tie with Parvana’ s story is small. It is a good way to keep the viewer interested during the slower parts, though.
The first part of the movie is spent introducing us to the main characters and how the strict rules work in Kabul. Once Parvana’s father is arrested, the movie follows Parvana’s struggle being the one person her whole family relies on and becoming used to being on the street. Most of the plot in this part is Parvana becoming stronger and gaining confidence. The end of the movie comes suddenly, just like the planes that show up above Kabul without warning. Although this twist comes out of nowhere, this appropriate considering the circumstances: the whole point is that nobody could have seen it coming. In the book, the ending is left open. In the movie, the ending is even twice that. After a magnificently overwhelming climax, the story has not actually arrived at the “happily ever after” stage and the viewer is left to speculate what happens next. I think this makes the movie very powerful: we see our beloved characters doing the right thing and still failing to completely meet their honourable goals. It sends out an important message that even though the outcome of a good decision may not be great, you should still do what is right. Another thing it teaches us is that life is hard: sometimes, things go wrong even when you did everything right. Thankfully, the movie still ends on a positive note that is just enough to make the ending not bitter but sweet and sour.
The protagonist, Parvana, is only 11 years old but is a real role model. She has all the cheekiness and stubbornness of a pre-teen, but mixed in with that is a very real love for her family and courage anybody would be proud of. I really liked how the movie doesn’t make her an adult in a child’s body: although outstandingly brave, it’s still very believable Parvana is 11 years old.
Parvana’s sister and mother are a lot less annoying than in the books: they actually appreciate what Parvana does and although her older sister, Nooria, is still bossy, she isn’t all too bad. It’s clear to see that Nooria and Parvana’s mother are strong but have been beaten down by a world that hates them. Parvana’s younger sister Maryam isn’t in the movie, probably because she has little plot relevance. Parvana’s younger brother, Hossain, is the epitome of cuteness. I loved him. His voice also seemed like it really was spoken by a toddler. Parvana’s father is a rather stereotypical nice guy who tells stories to keep the history of his country alive. The only difference is that he still has to work to make sure that his family doesn’t starve: he’s not only a spiritual but also a physical necessity.
Parvana’s friend, Shauzia, is a fun-loving, boisterous girl who loves being free to do what she wants and has big, lofty dreams. She gives the movie a positive tone whenever Parvana is feeling down. Her jokes and happy face add some light to the dark themes. Parvana’s other ally on the street is Razaq, who actually works for the Taliban. This makes him very interesting: on the one hand he is a very sympathetic character, on the other hand he works for the most unsympathetic group you could imagine. I enjoyed watching his story arc as he struggles with his beliefs and decides to do what’s right, even though this could very well end in him being killed.
Another small thing I thought helped make the movie great was the accents: the voice actors took lessons to make them sound as if they came from Afghanistan. I always like it when actors do this because it helps my brain realize that the movie takes place in a different country. American accents just don’t do that the way you’d like them to.
Graphics, messages, warnings
Before we get to the deep stuff, let me say first that the scenery and animation in this movie are lovely. The colour tones are warm and cold in the right places. Also, everything looked very realistic. Having spent 4 years of my life in a third world country, I immediately recognised a lot of things, such as the shabby buildings, mangy dogs, small market stalls and dirty roads. The story Parvana tells looks absolutely adorable and cheery, and still manages to make the monsters of ancient folklore – sabretooth tigers and giant elephants – look very impressive. The detail in the movie is wonderful, especially in the background. The walls, embroidery and wooden doors look great.
This movie has very strong messages for children, teens and adults. It teaches perseverance, pride, courage and loyalty. It demonstrates that doing the right things is more important than seeking your gain. Family is also very important to the story: family members are never left behind voluntarily. Even when they aren’t there, the rest of the family keeps trying to help them.
This movie being about the Taliban, you can be sure there will be a lot of violence. On the one hand, the directors have spared us some gore by leaving out the thieves’ hands being chopped off and Parvana and Shauzia digging up bones. On the other hand, they haven’t pulled any punches on the parts that are violent: bruises, beatings and blood are not hidden from view. At one point, Shauzia and Parvana discuss child marriage. Also, Parvana’s father being forcibly separated from his crying family could be too much for young children. The rating for the movie is PG-13. It’s a good idea for parents to watch this movie together with their children to keep tabs on how they are doing. The movie will probably also lead to a lot of questions about the abuse of women and the use of violence. Lastly, the main characters are Muslims. This isn’t made very evident, but they pray at one point. If you want to go there, this can be food for interesting discussions about religion and the definition of Islam.
The Breadwinner is an impressive movie that makes you happy and sad at the same time. The visuals are very satisfying and beautiful; the messages are important and the characters are great role models. The plot has two main character arcs: those of Parvana and Rasaq. They realistically show how the good comes out in both of them. The climax is overwhelming, both warming and wrenching your heart and leaving you with conflicted feelings. It is a good idea to be careful if you don’t like violence, though. The themes are also very heavy. The movie does not shield us from blood and bruises.
Despite this, The Breadwinner is a beautiful movie that is definitely worth the watch and makes you think for days.