Film of the week: Abouna

This beautifully gentle and lucid film rises head and shoulders above the rest of the week’s new releases

This is a beautifully gentle and lucid film from the Chadian writer-director Mahamat Saleh Haroun; it rises head and shoulders above the rest of the week’s new releases. Rich in understated humanity, Abouna is a film about love and loss, imbued with the most profound tenderness towards children and childhood. It manages, in the most remarkable way, to get extraordinarily dramatic life events in the lives of two young boys into just 81 minutes of screen time, while always maintaining its unhurried walking-pace narrative. It never harasses or hectors its audience; the performances are calm and deeply felt, and so is the way they are shaped and photographed.

Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) are the two young leads, boys of 15 and eight years old. Just before the opening credits we see a man wandering the desert in an ambiguous, semi-hallucinatory sequence; he finally looks directly into the camera, at us, an unreadable expression on his face. Wistfulness? Excitement? Regret? It is only when the film is under way that we realise that he is the boys’ father who has just deserted the family home, having been unemployed for years before that and going through a pretence of heading off for work every day. He never appears on screen after this initial moment, and thus Haroun has brilliantly and compassionately found a way to approximate the pathos of memory: throughout the picture, we remember what the father looks like - but like the boys, we are never to see him again.

The first half of the film is concerned with the boys’ forlorn attempt to find their father. Visiting the cinema one evening they are convinced that they can see him in a film - the younger stands up in the audience and piteously cries out: “Father, it’s me!” The boys steal the movie reel, bowling it down the streets to their house like a hoop, in order to study the individual frames at their leisure, trying to locate their father’s exact position in the world. That sounds tricksy and self-referential, and indeed the movie posters outside the cinema, for Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, Chaplin’s The Kid and Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, hint at the influences at work on Haroun. But like the rest of the picture, this moment has a marvellous, unforced naturalness, halfway between comedy and poignancy. It demystifies the medium of cinema itself, repositioning it as something accessibly within the lives of the people it is describing.

When the two sons ask their impassive but long-suffering mother why their father has gone, she replies only that he is “irresponsible”. Baffled, the elder looks it up in a dictionary, and discovers that it means someone who has no responsibility, who cannot be held responsible. A crucial misunderstanding, for this is the “non-responsible” definition that more properly belongs to them, as blameless children. But the boys absorb the idea that for some reason, their father is not to be held responsible for his actions, conflating this with their privilege as non-adults, and so achieve a strange empathy with their absent parent.

Their story deepens when Tahir and Amine’s distraught mother - having only just prevented them from receiving a beating for stealing the film reel - sends them away to a strict Koranic school in the country for some tough love. (The rigours of this kind of institution, a species of doctrinal boot camp, are also shown, though in fiercer terms, in Tareque Masud’s film The Clay Bird, set in Bangladesh, which has a UK release planned for next year.)

So despite the boys’ awful loneliness, deprived now of both parents, with Amine suffering increasingly from asthma, and still in their own eyes having done nothing wrong, they are exiled from home and family, including a kindly uncle whose guitar music is the movie’s irresistible soundtrack. But the rhythm of their life still has that easy swing, superbly captured in emotionally temperate scenes. One, for example, shows nothing more than Amine thoughtfully easing a grasshopper out of its chrysalis. It is notable that when something dramatic does happen, such as Amine hitting a boy with a stick for teasing him over not being able to swim, it happens off-camera: we move straight from the taunts to the bruised and rueful aftermath.

These are lovely performances from the boys themselves, made richer and more complex when one of whom meets a beautiful, silent girl: a late-flowering love story which is partly from the world of childhood and partly of adulthood. It causes a fateful rift between the two brothers, but leads to an affecting and uplifting family reconciliation.

Haroun demonstrates a gloriously quietist art in his direction, and Abouna thoroughly deserves to enjoy the acclaim recently lavished on Iranian cinema’s images of children. This movie has moments that linger in the mind: the boys running back from the cinema, the boys playing keepie-uppie in the street, the boys walking on their hands after looking for their father at the Chad-Cameroon border crossing, with all the insouciance of childhood, unable yet to comprehend the seriousness of what has happened to them. It’s the serendipitous skill in capturing images that shows the highest possible refinement of talent.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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