Quebecois director Kim Nguyen's drama War Witch transpires in an unspecified African country, where Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a pregnant 12-year-old girl, endures unspeakable atrocities during a period of intense political unrest. Psychotic rebels invade her village and force the girl to gun down her loving parents in cold blood. That marks her "initiation" into a vile cult of child soldiers and rips her innocence away irrevocably. Yet the picture takes an unusual, unpredictable turn when Komona inadvertently saves her superiors and comrades from death by predicting the enemy's movements. Her "leader," known as "Great Tiger," brands her as a shaman and begins using her systematically to ensure the success of the rebel military unit. In the process, we see a young girl whose spirit is being ripped to shreds -- and realize that a sad, broken life is inevitable for this character.
This may all sound harrowing, perhaps even unbearable. The most curious aspect of the picture, however, is Nguyen's deliberate resistance to anything heavy-handed. Despite devastating, gruesome subject matter, Nguyen dramatically underplays much of the film; many of the scenes feel reserved, matter-of-fact, and often shockingly low-key. Komona's forced butchery of her mom and dad is perhaps the strongest example: We see neither the gun being fired nor the bodies being hit, but merely a close-up of a traumatized, grief-stricken Komona as she undertakes the action. This sort of subdued approach to the picture may strike one as surprising, yet it was a wise choice. For one thing, the lack of melodramatic contrivance makes the film more memorable and credible; a less-conscientious director would have overdosed on horror and diluted the movie's persuasive impact. Moreover, the picture is far and away most effective in its sequences of quiet lyricism, as in a subplot that has Komona and a teenage boy nicknamed the Magician (Serge Kanyinda) finding themselves drawn to one another. The relationship is a poignant one, for we realize that war is both the catalyst for their blossoming romance and will likely be the force that undoes it by separating these two.
Nguyen also evinces maturity via the sequences that involve Komona's shamanistic visions. His decision to play those spiritual experiences straight, by depicting the visions themselves onscreen in lieu of treating them as psychotic delusions or village myths, connotes an unusual degree of respect for (and empathy with) Third World cultures, as well as a considerable amount of wisdom.
If the picture has a central flaw, it is merely tied to a lack of narrative momentum that starts to set in during its final 35 minutes or so. One feels the story beginning to slow to a crawl, and can't help but sense that more judicious editing might have been advisable. Having said that, though, this is still an excellent movie that does almost complete dramatic justice to its subject matter.