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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Telling Tales: A Tale of Afghanistan, with an Apple Hand Tattoo

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This is less a crime than a crime of bad timing. The story takes place in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011. By the end of the movie, you’ll know who’s guilty of what. And you’ll certainly not be let down by your guilty-until-proven-innocent situation.

Director Joshua Marston goes for a realistic style and uses dialog and images from different eras. In one scene, we see an animated map of a war-torn nation with a barcode of arms and a city zip code. In another, a kid watches his mother who has just been photographed. A computer reads the shot and downloads that image into a flash drive — a digital camera at the center of a crisis. The film demonstrates an ingenious way to explore the formation of the collective unconscious.

The dialog is based on a book by Gordon Korman, who started out as a television journalist and ended up writing a memoir — and an epistolary novel about a boy living with polio. Korman became obsessed with reconstructing the childhood of his boyson that involved endless word processing and many such devices, particularly the advent of the camera phone and the iPad.

Sci-fi literary historian David White was on the film’s writing team. The four credited writers — Luke Davies, R.J. Cutler, Martin McDonagh and Marston — can probably feel their work getting a bit crowded, though. The movie stars Harry Potter stars Evangeline Lilly and Domhnall Gleeson.

For reasons that will become clear, there’s no outside perspective or motivation in the story. Sallah (Gleeson) is drawn to a girl, Nadia (Lilly), who’s that girl with the hand tattoo on her back, with the apple all over her neck, which she hides behind her ears. They can’t be separated. The circumstances that lead to their kidnapping, sexual abuse and cover-up by their parents are so uncertain that an audience divided on point of view and on cause and effect, without active involvement, may not know what to do. The movie shifts its viewpoint between a child on the run and grown-ups who can’t be sure if they’re in the dark or the brighter or the darker, because the facts are so foggy.

One other film on the subject of child abductions, the 1987 comedy “This is Spinal Tap,” fretted about a future rock star who stole the voice of his drummer and turned it into a soul song. Here, the question seems, can evil be labeled evil, or would this evil flow from an ingrained sexual agenda? To preserve its innocence, the movie avoids listing any examples of parental evil. Yes, Nadia’s father is happily married and has children of his own. His older brother finds a way to exploit his younger sister’s disability.

There are some well-observed scenes, like a night at home, or a trip on the family minibus to visit a friend. Though Sallah, the child protagonist, is rather slow-witted, he’s not a child merely for the sake of realism. The film makes clear the dictates of both story and character: adults know what needs to be said, but they don’t want to say it because they might offend somebody.

Marston keeps the chase on a tight leash; with each step, it seems more improbable that all the conflicts of the story will be resolved. But that would be a sideshow. The true drama of “The Lie” is the account that is built up over three years, when Nadia’s story will be set to a satisfying end. The principal conflicts are as if Nadia is set up for some excruciating misunderstanding and needs to be shown the error of her ways. It has to be a comedy, though. It’s the same with the revelation. The child’s crime has to be under wraps because its display would confuse the audience. Eventually, the child admits to the crime.

Despite the clues hidden, the film makes the traumas quite believable. Imagine a home that was half trash: a rotting rot; spent cookies, discarded ladders; that bag in the old dining room table with the stinky stick in it. Kids come and go, replaced by new children. What goes on in those rooms is one tale of real life, against which we must judge the crimes of others.

Read more reviews from the Fall Movie Preview »

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