The Orphanage (4 stars)

The Orphanage

Bollywood fantasy mingles with political upheaval in this unusual, Afghanistan-set coming-of-ager

No, it's not a reissue of the masterful Spanish chiller, but this Danish-Afghan collaboration is fairly remarkable in its own right, being a culturally fascinating combination of realist drama and Bollywood extravaganza. Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat's third film is the second instalment – following 2016's award-winning Wolf and Sheep – in a planned pentalogy, inspired by her friend Anwar Hashimi's unpublished diaries. Hashimi appears poignantly here as the supervisor of the titular establishment.

Set in Kabul in 1989, its protagonist is 15-year-old street kid Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri, resuming his role from the earlier film), who is caught selling cinema tickets for a Hindi actioner (1988's Shahenshah) at vastly inflated prices and sent to a Soviet-run detention centre, known as the Orphanage, a shambolic but basically decent operation – which provides good food, education and even a trip to Moscow in amidst the indoctrination. When a girl catches his eye in class, the stoical Qodrat unexpectedly retreats into an ostentatious but deliberately stiff, Bollywood-style musical fantasy, the first of several such sequences.

It's an invigorating touch to what is otherwise quite a straight coming-of-ager; the enlivening and, at first, amusing inclusion of these interludes gives the film a selling point beyond its turbulent political situation (with the mujahideen on the horizon and the Soviets about to withdraw their support) and, ultimately, the fusion proves surprisingly stirring. It's a neat nod to cinema's ability to provide useful escapism from even the most dire of circumstances, and the film notes the way the young, too, can find the fun in almost anything.

Qodrat is the kind of largely passive protagonist that's not uncommon, with an enigmatic air and seen-it-all eyes. He might not give you much emotionally to go on but it's hard not to be drawn into this stone-faced boy's predicament, not least given his intriguingly camp internal life. Moreover, Sadat cultivates a wonderfully naturalistic picture of teenage bants and angst against a backdrop of hardship and encroaching danger; you never catch the kids acting and they rarely appear awkward under scrutiny. Although the cultural specifics are interestingly and credibly depicted, there's much that's recognisable to all – as it portrays raging hormones, the quest to fit in, and to find your place.

Available to watch on MUBI from Thu 14 May.

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