Bio skews a bit triumphal, perhaps, but it's an even-handed history.

A worthy portrait of a phenomenal woman, “Bhutto” is as thorough a history of the late Pakistani prime minister and her country as one can imagine, without actually knowing who assassinated her in 2007. Bio skews a bit triumphal, perhaps, but it’s an even-handed history of a person who might have led a very comfortable life, but ended up dying for the cause of her nation’s hobbled democracy. Exposure will come via news- and female-oriented cable, and of course, every film festival in the Western world.

Commencing before there was a Benazir Bhutto, or even a Pakistan, “Bhutto” performs a great service to a great number of viewers, explaining clearly to its presumably Western auds — via an avalanche of archival footage and period newscasts — what partition from India meant, what the religious situation there was/is, and especially about where Bhutto came from, namely the family of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic, onetime president/prime minister and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Framed for murder and executed under the regime of Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, the elder Bhutto handpicked is favorite child Benazir to carry on his work. That the legacy was a curse — the Bhuttos aren’t called “the Pakistani Kennedys” for nothing — seems a reasonable conclusion for the viewer to draw.

The rise of the Taliban and fundamentalist Islam in general has made the situation for women even worse today in Pakistan, but it was never good. The Bhuttos were blessed with money, education and looks, and yet when Benazir ascended to her ministership — and faced educational, economic and infrastructural crises — she also had to deal with a military that didn’t want to recognize a woman’s authority. If nothing else, what “Bhutto” brings home is the near-impossible task facing intellectuals leading illiterate nations. The high-minded can always be brought low, if the opposition wants to fight dirtily enough.

Not that the Bhuttos’ hands were entirely clean, to listen to some of the testimony provided, even by other Bhuttos: Fatima, daughter of Benazir’s brother Murtaza, blames Benazir’s husband Alif Zardari, now president of Pakistan, with having orchestrated the murder of her father by police because of Murtaza’s corruption allegations against Zardari and the Bhutto administration. It’s an interesting family.

“Bhutto” is a essentially an editing exercise, with huge amounts of archival footage and interviews with scholars, politicians and family members (Bhutto’s children all appear) put into a shape that’s not just coherent but exciting. Distribution may be a struggle, but the film will have a long afterlife.

Production values are good, although the music is, sometimes, emotionally coercive. And we could have done without Cat Stevens.

Bhutto

Production

A Yellow Pad Prods. presentation, in association with Icon TMI, of a Duane Baughman film. (International sales: Icon Entertainment, Los Angeles). Produced by Baughman, Arleen Sorkin, Mark Siegel, Amy Berg. Executive producer, Glenn Aveni. Co-producers, Pamela B. Green, Jarik van Sluijs, Darius Fisher. Directed by Jessica Hernandez, Johnny O'Hara. Written by O'Hara.

Crew

Camera, (color/B&W), Noel Donnellon, James Mulryan, David Ethan Sanders, Jens Schlosser; editor, Hernandez; music, Herb Graham Jr., Mader; music supervisor, Mike Meeker; sound, Robert Hoehn. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2010. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Sanam Bhutto, Alif Ali Zardari, Fatima Bhutto, Tariq Ali, Condoleeza Rice.

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