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.
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.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills