There isn't a moment in War Witch, the Oscar-nominated breakout film from Canadian director Kim Nguyen, that isn't covered by a thick layer of dread. From its opening sequence of a harrowing slaughter to its shattering conclusion, it holds the viewer's heart in a vise.
That's common for films focused on a child in peril, but there's an exploratory nature to this story of 12-year-old Komona (an electric Rachel Mwanza), forced into guerrilla warfare in an unnamed African country. Unlike Fernando Meirelles' jarring City of God, which examined child enforcers among the gangs of Rio de Janeiro, most of the violence here takes place off camera. It's a wise choice, considering the gravity of Komona's journey, and it allows the story to unfold as a horrifying yet redemptive coming-of-age fable.
War Witch begins with Komona's narration to her unborn baby, whom she fears will become evil as a direct result of its mother's life as a war witch. She received this designation from a warlord after consuming "magic milk" and developing the ability to see the spirits of people slain by the rebel group for which she's forced to fight. The film follows Komona from her peaceful life in a small village to her days of forced fighting in the jungle, where an army of AK-47-wielding children lay waste to government forces, struggle with starvation and endure daily beatings and rape.
Because the film doesn't veer from Komona's perspective, we never fully understand why she is forced to fight or why fate has been so unkind. As a result, War Witch at times becomes a fairly sweet story. The introduction of a boy named Magician (Serge Kanyinda) injects childlike softness into a terrifying tale, and the courtship hammers home the theme of stolen innocence as the two flee into the jungle in search of a peaceful life together.
However, at no point does the film relent in its depiction of harsh reality. Each moment of tenderness is overshadowed by danger, often with the ashen form of a spirit looming on the periphery. All the while, Ngyuen and his young star keep the film grounded with a wondrous sense of discovery, allowing Komona's complex journey through battlefields and phantasmagorias to play out simply. War Witch doesn't sermonize or propose a solution to its larger problems. It's a portrait of a life. It just so happens that said life is playing out in a living hell.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: War Witch opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.