'Osama' and 'The Return' tell tales of lost childhoods

A big difference between most Hollywood movies and the best overseas productions is that the latter often operate on a more human scale, and have the daring to tackle larger and deeper issues. This certainly goes for "Osama," an award-winning import from Afghanistan, and "The Return," a Russian suspense movie with roots in biblical ideas. Both have children as their main characters, using them as prisms to refract flaws in their respective societies.

The title of "Osama" may bring thoughts of the notorious Osama bin Laden, but the title character couldn't be more different. She's a 12-year-old Afghan girl whose family's hardships increase when the ruling Taliban cracks down increasingly hard on the rights of women to engage in even the most ordinary tasks, such as taking a job to support a household.

Osama's widowed mother comes up with a desperate idea: She'll cut her daughter's hair, dress her in male clothing, and pass her off as a boy. Osama obeys with understandable trepidations, taking a job with a merchant who turns a blind eye to the ruse.

It appears that all is well - until Osama is forcibly whisked away from work to a Taliban school where boys are indoctrinated into the group's Islamic militancy. Schoolmates taunt Osama for being effeminate, and it looks as if her deception will come to light. I won't give away the ending except to say it's as surprising as it is harrowing.

"Osama" is the first feature film by writer-director Siddiq Barmak, who shot the movie with the only 35mm camera in Afghanistan and elicited superb performances from a nonprofessional cast. It's gripping, timely, and revealing.

"The Return" also comes from a new filmmaker: Andrei Zvyagintsev, a former actor. The dramatic story focuses on two young brothers who discover to their amazement that their father - who's not been seen for the past 12 years - has abruptly returned to the household.

He seems more interested in exercising control than bestowing affection, and this doesn't change when he takes the boys on a fishing trip that turns out to be a lot less fun than they expected, since their father keeps leaving them on their own, skulking around in ominous ways, and browbeating them if they complain. The younger one starts wondering if he's their real father at all, and it's easy to share his doubts.

"The Return" is enriched by allusions to biblical stories of fathers, sons, and sacrifices, subtly woven into the movie's moodily photographed fabric.

Mr. Zvyagintsev is definitely a newcomer to watch.

Not rated; both films contain violence.

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