Freedom is good and the Taliban is very bad in “Black Tulip,” a well-intentioned drama that would play much better if it didn’t feel the need to make that message quite so heavy-handedly obvious. Last year’s Afghan submission to the Oscar race, this first feature from activist, producer, director and co-scenarist Sonia Nassery Cole (who also plays one of the leads) opens in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 26, with VOD launch the same day. Expat communities will be the primary audience for a pic unlikely to get the reviews needed to draw arthouse patrons.
Kabul’s Mansouri family has suffered enough in its nation’s stormy last decades, and now hopes to help create a brighter, post-extremist future. Farishta (Cole) has long dreamed of opening a restaurant that also provides open public forum for poetry and music — a tribute to her beloved father, who was killed by Russian occupiers for operating a progressive bookstore. Others in the family, including Farishta’s spouse, Hadar (Haji Gul Aser), are worried about attracting attention from the wrong people. But the opening is a success, even drawing in U.S. military brass, and with further help from a flattering news article, business is soon booming.
Unfortunately, hostile forces are indeed watching, noting the establishment’s popularity with foreigners and the sometimes politically charged verse recited from its stage. The joyous occasion of a wedding in the family is targeted for violent attack by a Taliban sect in order to send a distinct message to the Mansouris and their liberal patrons. When that doesn’t shutter the restaurant, more mayhem ensues — murders, kidnappings, children placed in mortal danger. In a sequence that bookends the action, Hadar must meet with the mullah behind these actions to save his family.
Pic seems very much designed for Western viewers, with preachy dialogue and high melodrama recalling the simplistic if effective content of Hollywood’s WWII propaganda features. Already clear points are laboriously spelled out in word and deed; there are no gray areas here, just exemplary and/or wholly innocent citizens and glowering bad guys. (It’s unclear whether Cole intended the American military characters to come off as slightly boorish, which they do.) Some viewers may question the wisdom of a fadeout that provides eye-for-an-eye justice — though that, among other elements, will sweeten “Black Tulip” for politically conservative U.S. audiences.
Cole has been a longtime activist on behalf of Afghan causes, notably meeting with President Reagan as a teenage refugee from Soviet occupation. “Tulip” has the conviction as well as the artlessness of a saber-rattling speech at a political fundraising dinner, one that preaches fire and brimstone to inflame the already converted. Those seeking a more nuanced portrayal of the challenges facing the country will be less satisfied.
Package is polished in tech and design terms; the actors are OK if sometimes over-the-top. Natalie Cole (no relation to the helmer) sings a predictably blunt “Freedom Song” with Ehsan Aman at the end.