Review: 'War Witch'

“Oh, a kid would never act like that!” is what I thought to myself during the horrifying opening scenes of “War Witch.” Perhaps this need to negate what was on display was a psychological crutch – a way to disassociate myself from the intolerable cruelty on display.

But maybe not. No twelve year old would machine gun her own parents so quickly, no matter how much an invading guerrilla fighter yelled at her. Furthermore, she'd be unable to just pick up and move on with the band, press-ganged into the service of, as she puts in, “making war.” She'd be so stricken with grief and fear that she couldn't walk, right?

That's when I realized why it is so important movies like “War Witch” get made. Not in an eat your vegetables/donate to UNICEF way (though you should do both), but because one of the great tricks of “world cinema” is to try and bridge that gap between the reality you know - and so arrogantly assume is universal - with cultures that are distant and experiences that are foreign.

I have no clue what it's like to grow up in an eternal conflict zone like some of the more tortured central African nations, but Kim Nguyen's film, which recently lost the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to Michael Haneke's "Amour," is not quite as soul-deadening as you might think. It's depressing stuff, to be sure, but it does a marvelous job at giving us an impressionistic taste of horrific circumstances without using them to beat us into submission.

When we meet Komono she is speaking in voice over to her child in utero, to explain how s/he got there. We witness her being kidnapped by a well-armed group of rebels and then trained by the same. While the French language and Nicholas D. Kristof-like setting suggest the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nguyen keeps it intentionally vague. You have no idea who is fighting whom, or why, but the new, young infantry recruits soon adapt to their roles as killers.

Shooting rifles is just part of the gig. There's also the drinking of some sort of psychotropic liquid that appears to have a greater effect on Komono than others. She quickly starts having visions (primarily of the spirits of fallen warriors) and she becomes something of a living talisman, a “war witch.” Word of her ability to sense the enemy's movements eventually makes its way up to the rebel leader, leading to a trip to main compound, featuring gorgeous, incongruously designed buildings.

Amidst the haze of violence and base operations, something of a love story begins to emerge. A similarly young fighter called Magician has his eyes on Komono, which sets him on a trek to find a white rooster, essential for wooing. Despite Komono's young age (thirteen now) she agrees to marry him and they try and take refuge at his uncle's home. A good war witch is hard to find, though, so she soon finds her dreams of domesticity dashed.

I absolutely hate it when people slap the M word ("Malick") on any film that is dreamy and shot primarily outdoors. “War Witch,” however, does something that, “The Thin Red Line” notwithstanding, seems nearly impossible – it makes the destruction and hardships of war seem, at times, somewhat poetic.

I was expecting “War Witch” to be a grueling 90 minutes of liberal guilt. While there are upsetting moments (like the opening) and some flashes of violent imagery, it actually isn't, as the lingo goes, a tough sit. I may have had trouble empathizing with the characters, even the lead, but that doesn't make the film any less fascinating.

Grade - B+

"War Witch" is currently playing on VOD, and arrives in theaters this Friday.