As one youth in revolt asks in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, “Shouldn’t a revolutionary cinema employ a revolutionary syntax?” Sonia Nassery Cole’s Afghan drama The Black Tulip, though it contains the traces of a revolutionary spirit, employs only the shopworn syntax of a rote Hollywood thriller, relying on broad strokes and clichés to articulate a nation’s very real suffering. Because the conditions of its production made its completion alone unlikely, there’s a meaningful sense in which The Black Tulip is an important film: A story of life under Taliban threat in Afghanistan told from the inside provides a rare opportunity for an oppressed or marginalized voice to express the pain of lived experience, as well as a temporary reprieve from the ongoing tradition of tales of American saber-rattling in the Middle East. And yet, frustratingly, The Black Tulip fails despite real stakes to distinguish itself in any way from the action-movie fantasies to which we’re greatly accustomed.
Its faults lay in the details: The film’s Kabul-set milieu, while believably bustling and vibrant, never feels authentically lived in or deeply explored, for the most part shot at such a remove (or with so little interest in specifics) that we might as well be looking at a backlot approximation. This is particularly evident in the film’s conspicuous reliance on the close-quarters confines of nondescript alleys and corridors, which, though perhaps more convenient for production purposes, offer no sense of real-world spatial orientation in which to ground the action. And speaking of action, the abundance depicted here—first as harrowing acts of violence inflicted with little cause by the Taliban against a well-meaning but sacrilegiously free-thinking family, and later as exaggerated retribution for those acts—is continually reduced, in formal terms, to fantasy gunplay and gestures of cartoonish villainy, an unnecessary and unfortunate cop-out considering the basis of such violence in reality. The shadowy members of the Taliban, its nameless figures skulking about in the shadows while conspiring against our protagonists, are crudely sketched as one-dimensional abstractions of demonstrable evil—and while that creative decision was obviously fueled by justifiable anger, the result is a vaguely defined band of supremely uninteresting villains.
A mid-film wedding ceremony provides another opportunity for generic, blockbuster-mimicking action, in this case a brutal shooting that borrows much from Michael Mann, including a thick gloss of mood lighting and some shameless slow-motion screaming. What follows adopts, rather improbably, the sweep of a classical revenge picture, replete with all the massive explosions and narrow escapes you’d expect from a big-budget thriller. Odder still is the film’s trio of well-intentioned and preeminently polite American soldiers, glorified in earnest after a shoehorned-in kidnapping grants them the chance to play the heroes as they shoot a few terrorists and rescue a helpless child; it’s an odd episode that, given the army’s complicated history with Afghan civilians, plays out as shockingly uncritical. The vaguely propagandistic pro-army undertones would be more disconcerting if it seemed like the film were guided by any kind of coherent ideology, but as it stands, The Black Tulip seems too naïve to be accused of harboring ulterior motives. Like too much in the film, this sort of slip up is just another Hollywood convention, recycled once again.