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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Act of Dishonour (2010)

* * 1/2

Director: Nelofer Pazira
Starring: Nelofer Pazira, Marina Golbahari

A Canadian crew comes to Afghanistan to make a film and in the process completely disrupts the lives of people in a small village, acting as the catalyst for a tragedy they never anticipated. That is the premise for Nelofer Pazira's Act of Dishonour, an ambitious film that falls just short of its goal but nevertheless crafts a few golden moments out of its narrative.

The director of the film within the film is Ben (Greg Bryk), a liberal guy of the type who thinks that being a liberal means explaining the female experience to women and the Afghan experience to people living in Afghanistan (or the experience of any "other" people). His crew includes Mejgan (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan-Canadian who comes expecting to reconnect with her cultural roots and finds that the reality of Afghanistan is different than the Afghanistan of her imagination. Still, she begins to develop a friendship with Mena (Marina Golbahari), a bride-to-be whose contact with her fiancée, Rahmat (Masood Serwary), is limited according to local custom.

Knowing that a burka is one of the items Mena needs to obtain before her wedding, Mejgan convinces her to participate in the film by promising her that she can keep one of the burkas from wardrobe. Mena, who is not supposed to leave home without being in the company of a male relative, very reluctantly agrees and all hell breaks loose. The men of the village agree that by leaving the house, Mena has brought shame on her family and her father is encouraged to carry out an honor killing. In a scene of incredibly well-constructed suspense, he attempts to murder his daughter but ultimately can't bring himself to do so. He then seeks out Rahmat and essentially passes the buck to him. Meanwhile, the film crew has no idea just how much damage they've done as they've already high tailed it out of town without looking back.

There's more to the film, plotwise, than this one thread but that's the dominant narrative that carries the film. There is also a subplot involving displaced people who return to the village to find that their ancestral homes are now occupied by others, but this story exists at the margins of the story, fleshing out the setting without necessarily being a plot thread the film is concerned about resolving. The main plot, meanwhile, can sometimes be very heavily didactic and the dialogue very stilted, but there are times when it breaks free from this, resulting in moments that feel very true and honest (much of this comes courtesay of Golbahari's very skilled performance).

Act of Dishonour's greatest strength, I think, is ultimately in the beautiful cinematography by frequent Atom Egoyan collaborator Paul Sarossy. There is a painterly aspect to many of the shots that Sarossy captures and the images are incredibly striking. Unfortunately, the film itself very rarely gets much deeper than the surface and rarely rises above the level of a morality play. It isn't a bad movie, it just doesn't quite reach its potential.

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