Review: ‘The Orphanage,’ an imperfect yet charming blend of Bollywood and Soviet Afghanistan
Bollywood meets Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s “The Orphanage.” Based on the unpublished diaries of actor Anwar Hashimi — who plays the only significant adult role, the title institution’s supervisor — it’s a modest coming-of-age period piece that incidentally diverges into over-the-top dreamscapes.
The year is 1989, just before the mujahedin guerrillas took control of the country. Apprehended for scalping movie theater tickets, Kabul teenager Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri) is placed in a government-run boys home where learning Russian is a priority. Sadat cast Afghan nonactors to paint a scatterbrained picture of parentless adolescence, and outstanding production design immerses us in this historical remembrance.
As she introduces several core characters, including Qodrat’s best friend, Hasib (Hasibullah Rasooli), Sadat chronicles everything from their nascent sexual desires and soccer rivalries to their trip to Moscow. Unfortunately, and perhaps because it’s derived from nuggets of memories, “The Orphanage” suffers from having minimal development of the characters’ innermost wounds and their interpersonal bonds within this prison-like refuge.
Every time we are about to pry a little deeper, or learn a bit more about any of them and what landed them here, the next story point comes along. What could have been a potent character-driven drama loses traction the more it meanders. Nevertheless, Qadiri and his multiple costars bring a raw sensibility, making one forget this is fiction.
The blending of genres feels less jarring than some of the other jumps between scenes. Cutting away from its social-realist construct and into musical sequences inspired by Bollywood, a level of charmingly imperfect kitsch is preserved. Qodrat adores the popular Indian films, and so he imagines himself a part of those fanciful stories. Though outwardly cheerful, one of the numbers, a heartfelt ode to friendship devoid of all malice, provides the work’s most emotionally charged note.
There’s a purity to all of the young men’s actions and reactions, even the misunderstood bullies, that Sadat treasures and shares with the viewer. Amid the missteps, the care the filmmaker has for this story prevails.
In Dari and Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Available on Amazon Prime for rent or purchase
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