The Orphanage review – finely tuned Afghan drama is wonderfully immersive

Filmmaker Sharhbanoo Sadat carefully balances the specific and the universal for this entertaining, heartfelt ode to youth and imagination

As the second entry into a planned five-part adaptation of a series of Afghan memoirs, The Orphanage might seem like a daunting prospect, a film for which the barrier to entry is unusually high. Yet to the huge credit of director Sharhbanoo Sadat this simply isn’t the case. You don’t need to have seen the first film to understand this quasi-sequel, and it finds a charming and entertaining universality in its specific slice of life.

Set in a Soviet-funded Afghan orphanage at the tail end of the occupation of the ’80s, The Orphanage is by and large an ensemble piece, following the day-to-day lives of a handful of the boys there. Sadat favours characters and atmosphere over plot, moving the film at a gentle pace as the boys deal with bullies, form friendships, and go to school. There are more dramatic events, from their witnessing a tank crash to a trip to a pioneer camp in the USSR, but the status quo doesn’t change dramatically from scene-to-scene.

If it sounds a little inert on paper, it’s the opposite in practice. Sadat uses the kind of socio-realist style familiar from any number of European movies, which is incredibly immersive when combined with the superb, naturalistic performances of the kids. The 90 minute runtime flies by, and the different dynamics within the various, overlapping groups of friends are immediately familiar, investing you in The Orphanage’s unique world.

Within the ensemble, we spend the most concentrated time with Qodrat (Quodratullah Qadiri), a cinema-mad 15 year old who enjoys popularity and status at both the orphanage and the school. When seeing the world directly through Qodrat’s eyes, Sadat affords herself the opportunity to switch up her styles, crafting extended Bollywood-esque dream sequences. Qodrat processes major events through the lens of his favourite films, whether it’s a romantic dance number, an over-the-top fight scene, or a motorbike ride through the countryside with gorgeous, sweeping cinematography.

These sequences are a lot of fun and sparingly used, helping to punctuate a film that is otherwise loosely structured. There is certainly an epic scope to The Orphanage, encompassing war, international travel, and the ominous march to power of the Mujahideen, a possible outcome that deeply worries orphanage director Anwar (Anwar Hashimi, upon whose life this film is largely based).

These grand political events feel both frighteningly imminent and impossibly far away, further immersing the audience in the headspace of children in a state institution, unable to escape politics but also lacking any real agency in or deeper understanding of these matters. The Orphanage really brings the kids’ experiences to life in all their colour and texture. Though we only see the world outside the orphanage briefly, the snapshots of pre-Mujahideen Afghanistan are moving, a reminder of the lively culture and people behind the headlines.

The Orphanage is clearly a deeply personal project for all the adults involved. A carefully constructed film full of hope and jubilation, yet appropriately melancholy, it’s a heartfelt ode to youthful imagination and a lost past.

The Orphanage is now streaming on MUBI.

Where to watch online

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