A generically simplified script weakens this worthy child-soldier drama inspired by, but deliberately veering from, the memoir by Senait G. Mehari.

A generically simplified script weakens the worthy child-soldier drama “Heart of Fire.” Inspired by, but deliberately veering from, the memoir by Senait G. Mehari, pic is saved from blandness by the charismatic performance of young lead Letekidan Micael, whose inherent dignity and wonderfully expressive eyes make up for the script’s unoriginal lines and the producers‘ desire to give this very specific tale a universal overlay. Helmer Luigi Falorni’s first fiction feature will benefit from newsworthy battles over its authenticity, though enthusiasm is unlikely to surpass his “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”

Controversy continues to plague both book and film, pitting Mehari’s supporters against those who deny Eritrean rebels ever used child soldiers. Lawsuits have been threatened, though it’s unlikely to stop pic’s sales, since everyone involved carefully reinforces the notion that the movie is not a faithful reproduction of the memoir.

In 1981, Eritrea is still wracked by civil war. Ten-year-old Awet (Letekidan Micael) is in an orphanage run by Italian and Eritrean nuns who teach the headstrong girl about the strength that comes from dignified pride. When Awet’s father Haile (Samuel Semere) unexpectedly calls her home, a nun gives her an image of the Virgin Mary and a Sacred Heart, or “Heart of Fire.”

Awet’s father soon hands her and her older sister Freweyni (Solomie Micael) over to the Eritrean Liberation Front, known as the Jebha. Awet is too small to be given a gun, but she’s drawn to the fiery rhetoric of rebel leader Ma’aza (Seble Tilahun), imitating her Angela Davis afro and quickly learning the revolutionary songs used to sustain the ragtag group of soldiers.

After a skirmish with the much-hated Shabia faction, even the youngest kids are given weapons, though they’re barely able to pull the cartridge lever. Teacher Mike’ele (Daniel Seyoum) protests, but he’s overruled.

Early scenes have a Dickensian feel, plunging the stubborn though well-cared-for child into a strange, primitive world of violence. As the plot unspools, however, the situations become predictable, such as a simplistic sequence in which Awet discovers there’s no physical difference between the Jebha and the Shabia, or when she asks a wounded soldier, “Why do you fight against us?”

Few characters register as anything more than stereotypes, and the script fails to give Freweyni, with her mournful eyes and painfully thin body, a demonstrable personality aside from a passive acceptance of fate. Awet’s trajectory from hero worship to betrayal is over in a flash, and would benefit from more gradual development. Despite claims that Awet represents child soldiers everywhere, the entire story is grounded in recent Eritrean history, as signaled by an introductory map and potted lesson.

Casting proved especially difficult after the Eritrean government put pressure on everyone involved to bail or face serious repercussions. Luckily, Falorni struck gold with Letekidan Micael, an instinctual performer capable of making old scenes feel new again. Falorni certainly proves he’s capable of both fiction and docu work, though at times, “Weeping Camel” feels like a subtler tale.

Aside from a few night scenes that have a slightly muddy feel, lensing is clean and accomplished, with one lovely, dreamlike image of Awet on a tree branch. Andrea Guerra’s score suits the visuals and rarely calls attention to itself.

Heart of Fire

Germany-Austria

Production

A BurkertBareiss (Germany) presentation of a TV60Film, Senator Film Produktion, Beta Film, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Arte (Germany)/Aichholzer Filmproduktion (Austria) production, in collaboration with Film Studios Kenya, Pontact Prods. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching, Germany.) Produced by Andreas Bareiss, Sven Burgmeister, Gloria Burkert, Bernd Burgemeister. Co-producers, Christoph Mueller, Joseph Aichholzer, Dirk Schuerhoff. Directed by Luigi Falorni. Screenplay, Falorni, Gabriele Kister, inspired by the book by Senait Ghebrehiwet Mehari.

Crew

Camera (color, D-Cinema-to-35mm), Judith Kaufmann; editor, Anja Pohl; music, Andrea Guerra; production designer, Vittoria Sogno; costume designer, Birgitta Lohrer-Horres; sound (Dolby Digital), Marc Parisotto; line producer, Jenny Pont. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 14, 2008. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Letekidan Micael, Solomie Micael, Seble Tilahun, Daniel Seyoum, Mekdes Wegene, Samuel Semere. (Tigrinya, Italian dialogue)

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