A TIME OF DRUNKEN HORSES (Bahman Ghobadi, 2000)

I wrote about Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh) that it is “one of the most dazzlingly brilliant films I have seen about the impact of war on civilian populations,” “a comedy, robust, energetic and humane, in the great tradition of ‘road films,’ that veers seamlessly into a depiction of war’s horror and attendant grief.” The film, only his second, was written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Now I have finally seen Ghobadi’s previous film, A Time of Drunken Horses (Zamani barayé masti asbha), and it confirms my opinion that Ghobadi is a great film artist. He won the prize for best first film at both Cannes and Sarajevo, and he also won for this film the International Jury Award at São Paulo.

Here again, Ghobadi, the former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami on The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord), has wrought heart-piercing tragedy from what is essentially absurdist comedy. It is a film about three orphaned Kurdish children, two brothers and a sister living on their own, who continually fail—one almost wants to say that, like Sisyphus, they continuously fail—at the one thing they try most to do. For the time being, they manage to survive under the harshest conditions imaginable, but the operation that the elder brother needs if he is to live for another eight months or so perpetually eludes their means to attain.

The scene is the Iran-Iraq border, where the family is stranded. The dying sibling is Madi, who is 15 but whose illness, I presume liver-related, has stunted his growth so that only his deeply worn face, an accumulation of horrendous pain, betrays that he is not the youngest of the three. Madi needs to be carried like a baby, and he wails like a baby each time he is given an injection by the sometime resident doctor. Ayoub is his brother; Ameneh, his sister. Both love Madi dearly. Ayoub struggles to earn enough money for Madi’s operation, but what little he makes from hard labor goes to feeding the three of them. Referring to the operation for Madi the necessity of which he insists upon, the doctor tells Ayoub, “Well, that’s up to you.” Ameneh marries an Iraqi in hopes that this will lead to Madi’s operation; but the groom’s family renegs on their promise to allow her to bring Madi along with her and settles the dispute by handing over to Ayoub both Madi and a mule. At the last, Ayoub is trying to smuggle the mule and his brother, along with himself, into Iraq: the mule, for what he hopes will be a lucrative sale; Madi, for the operation. The mountainous, snowy passage is treacherous, and all the more so for the abundance of minefields—a legacy of the Iran-Iraq war.

The terrible existence of these three children puts us in mind of Edmund, the 12-year-old boy laboring to keep his family financially afloat in postwar Berlin, in Roberto Rossellini’s phenomenal Germany, Year Zero (1947). Ayoub, who is Edmund’s age, and Ameneh bear adult responsibilities beyond their youthful means to shoulder, and Madi’s life very nearly defines an intolerably harsh existence, especially for someone so young. Like Rossellini’s neorealist tragedy (which ends with Edmund playing like a boy for the first time that we see and extending this play into suicide), Ghobadi’s film proceeds objectively, relentlessly, like a documentary cataloguing and recapitulating incredible hardships. The film’s comical nature, though, marks its approach as very different from Rossellini’s essentially clinical one. Rossellini’s film is untouched by absurdism.

Encapsulating this comical dimension is the activity that gives the film its title. For the laboring treks that they are made to undergo through the roughest conditions of weather and terrain imaginable, horses and mules are given water spiked with vodka. Only when drunk will the beasts of burden do their jobs. On occasion, as we see, havoc ensues when the animals become too drunk—a fate that ultimately befalls the mule that Ayoub had hoped to sell to raise the money for Madi’s operation. The film leaves Madi alive and in pain and perpetually on the verge of losing his life. Life doesn’t get more tragically funny than this.

Visually, the principal action that the camera records is attempt after attempt by desperate people, including Ayoub, to traverse the mountains and snow to reach some destination, such as Iraq, which apparently offers hope of a better life. As I write in 2004, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have reduced to nonexistence even this possibility. How great the nation that crushes hope?

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