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Review: ‘Jirga’ asks if atonement for war sins is possible

Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad and Sam Smith in ‘Jirga’
Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, left, and Sam Smith in the movie “Jirga.”
(Lightyear Entertainment)

A remarkable truthfulness shepherds Benjamin Gilmour’s tightly written and conscientiously produced drama “Jirga” as it renders an image of Afghanistan not as a ravaged battleground but as an arrestingly rich land.

Hand-held shooting, with the director also serving as cinematographer, provides a gritty immediacy to the quest for atonement that Aussie war veteran Mike (Sam Smith) has embarked on, from the lively streets of Kabul to arid landscapes around Kandahar. A true Westerner, the remorseful ex-soldier assumes cash can indemnify the victims of a deathly fault he committed while deployed.

Limiting its use of subtitles, a brave choice that emphasizes nonverbal communication, “Jirga” restrains from euphemizing and manages not to be cynical. The film, which takes its name from a Pashto word referring to a tribal council, begins as a road movie. Mike fraternizes with a taxi driver (a radiant Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) over sweeping vistas and music-making until the Taliban enters to, understandably, probe the foreigner’s intentions.

Like his fictional lead, Gilmour understands this should exist as the opposite of a white savior narrative. An ode and a cinematic apology to a country perennially tarnished by outsiders undeserving of its welcoming culture, here its people and geographical attributes take top billing.

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Near the end of the strenuous trail, the penetrating gaze of a child, whose heart has withstood immeasurable despair, cuts through the screen like a dagger in a climactic confrontation — a moment so charged with unspoken gravity it lands with earth-shattering force. “Forgiveness is better than revenge,” utters one of the local leaders in the aftermath. Few platitudes are as simultaneously obvious and in constant need of reiteration.

‘Jirga’
In Pashto and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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