Viewer’s Discretion: “The Breadwinner” and “The Square”

the breadwinner


Based on the book by Deborah Ellis, this gorgeous Oscar-nominated animated film tells the story of Parvana (Saara Chaudry), a young girl living in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban. She usually accompanies her father, a former teacher, to the marketplace to help sell off their belongings to support the family. Harassment by one of the father’s former students, now a pushy Taliban follower, leads to the father’s imprisonment, and Parvana must take desperate measures to help her family survive — she pretends to be a boy.

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women are not allowed outside the house without the proper covering and male accompaniment, so the father’s imprisonment equals a death sentence for the family.Parvana soon finds that she is not the only girl who has embraced this solution and, with her friend Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), embarks on an adventure of sorts scamming men to hire them for work. At the same time, Parvana uses one of her father’s skills — storytelling — to help the family get through the crisis and parse out their situation.

In examining the specific circumstances of Afghanistan, “The Breadwinner” opens up questions about the general evil of religious fanaticism’s role in seizing political power and the arbitrary nature of societal gender disparity. It also suggests misogyny is an action against men who don’t fall in line with the masculine standards of a society. The most amazing aspect is that these themes are explored within a G-rated animated kids movie that wraps fantasy-sequences around the reality it portrays and offers not one, but two girl characters that supply a much-needed antidote for anyone annoyed with the Disneyfication of female film protagonists, particularly all those princesses.

In managing to combine the power of escapism with the complexities of reality, “The Breadwinner” does something that children’s films too often fail at — it trusts the kids, and it trusts that there is some middle ground in experience for them and the adults in their life. Most importantly it illustrates that fantasy has the most power when it entwines with real life rather than hiding it from view.


Focusing in on the world of contemporary art museums, but ever limiting its satirical scope to the world, “The Square” is, at its most basic, a story of privilege, of its structure and systems, and of how these abstracts manifest themselves in some people, usually white, usually male, usually with money. It’s also about how oblivious these people can be to their privilege, and how, in the end, privilege might well be a closed system there is no stepping away from, and the privileged just hamsters of a very desirable, alienating wheel.

Christian (Claes Bang) is a curator and helming the upcoming project “The Square,” an installation that marks out a space for equality and mutual understanding. It’s a nice enough thought, but it’s certainly odd that there should be a special small area designated for simple human dignity. Outside of that square, Christian does his best to practice the concepts of modern, progressive, social liberalism — or, at least, he can talk the talk, which is the same thing for a lot of people in his position. Despite the ideas he espouses, his actions often speak the opposite.

All this makes “The Square” seem more obvious than it is. Director Ruben stlund has created a work of multiple layers, some of which loop in on themselves, and sometimes even manages to have it both ways. It’s a film that acknowledges the absurdity and eye-rolling futility of abstract art, and yet also portrays its humor, its elegance. It celebrates disruption and then questions it. It advocates social responsibility and then challenges you to declare what good it actually does. It acknowledges the need to own up to your actions and then asks you if by doing so you are giving into forces that would limit free expression.

Most importantly, it’s a film that asks the big questions but offers no solutions, other than the suggestion that there might be no solutions to offer. And it does it in a way that two-and-a-half hours breezes by, with plenty of laughs at the expense of contemporary art amidst the existential shivers.

Originally published at

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