Fresh off its Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, "The Breadwinner" opens in Rochester this week. The film comes from Cartoon Saloon, the small, Ireland-based animation studio behind the acclaimed (and also Oscar-nominated) "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea." Adapted from Deborah Ellis's 2000 children's novel and directed by Nora Twomey from a script by Anita Doron, "The Breadwinner" tells the story of Parvana (voiced by newcomer Saara Chaudry), a young girl growing up in contemporary Afghanistan.
When her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), is arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban's religious police, Parvana, her mother, and her siblings face dire circumstances. The culture's deeply ingrained misogyny has resulted in women being banned from walking the streets without a man to accompany them, and without an adult male at home, there's no one left to provide for Parvana and her family.
In order to keep them from starving, Parvana cuts her hair and makes the risky decision to disguise herself as a boy so that she may continue to sell her father's wares in the Kabul marketplace. There, she also meets Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a classmate who's similarly posing as a boy. With their assumed identities, the girls are able to seek work and move about the city as they wish.
While the story takes on darker material than previous Cartoon Saloon films, "The Breadwinner" nonetheless continues the beautifully vivid animation that's become the studio's trademark. Interspersed throughout the narrative, we see scenes from a story Parvana tells to her baby brother in an attempt to lift his spirits. Remembering her father's words, that "stories remain in our hearts even after all else is gone," she weaves an adventuresome tale about a young boy who faces off with a malevolent elephant king. Veering from the look of the rest of the film, these sequences are stunningly illustrated in an intricate, cut paper style.
In telling its deeply emotional story about the resilience of young children living constantly under threat of violence, "The Breadwinner" calls to mind Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" -- though it's never quite so bleak as that animated classic. Instead, it's a touching and at times heartbreaking testament to the ability of storytelling to keep the flame of hope alive, even when all else seems lost.