Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of a great generation of Iranian directors, some of whom have found filmmaking difficult in the Islamic Republic, which predictably has failed to recognize that its filmmakers are its best ambassadors to the world. Makhmalbaf has been an expatriate for years now, and 2014 found him in the Republic of Georgia filming The President, an international co-production and a fable aspiring to global relevance. Often brilliant, it flounders at the very end, uncertain both of how to end its story and of what moral to draw from it.

The President of an unidentified nation where the people speak Georgian (Misha Gomiashvili) is, in fact, a dictator whose spoiled, diabetic grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) addresses him as "Your Majesty." The President is raising the boy because his own son, the boy's father, was killed by terrorists some time ago. To distract the boy from his unhealthy desire for ice cream, the President shows him the kind of power he'll inherit. With one phone call, he can have all the lights in his capital city turned off, then turned back on. He lets the boy try. The lights go out, then come back on. Cool! He orders them out again, but this time they stay out. The President reclaims the phone and gives the order, but he's left in the dark, except for the feeble glow of explosions throughout the city.

I don't know what color it is, or whether it's spring or some other season, but we have ourselves a revolution. The President evacuates the rest of his family as he prepares to fight, but his grandson refuses to leave. He wants to stay in the palace with his playmate and dance partner Maria. The situation deteriorates rapidly in a bravura sequence that belies any notion that the Iranian filmmakers are dull. The President's limo is chased through the streets by mobs as his loyalists gradually desert him, until its finally just him and the boy against an angry nation.

While the boy is terribly spoiled and utterly unprepared for the ordeal to come, the old man is a cunning, ruthless survivor who quickly cops a disguise by robbing a poor barber at gunpoint. Picking up a guitar elsewhere, he passes himself off as a minstrel, the boy becoming like an organ grinder's monkey. The old man becomes a master of hiding in plain sight, even pulling off a gag as old as the movies by disguising himself as a scarecrow in a field with his back to a revolutionary militia desperately seeking a million-dollar bounty. For a while it looks like the story is going to be about the old man's changing relationship with the boy, who must now call him "Grandpa" instead of "Your Majesty" for safety's sake, and who must learn to be practical and at least minimally tough, though he doesn't really seem to have it in him. Interestingly, the boy gets flashbacks but the old man doesn't.

While the old man and the boy arguably do become more like a real family, The President grows more concerned with the title character's long-delayed awakening of empathy for ordinary people. It soon becomes obvious that the revolutionaries are hardly better than the old regime. That should be no surprise, since most of the personnel are the same. In one horrific scene, guards at a military checkpoint rob a bunch of carpooling refugees, including the incognito fugitives, then turn their attentions to a bridal party. The commanding officer claims the droit de seigneur, while the bride, disgusted by the complete failure of family and friends to defend her, asks to be honor-killed, and is obliged. Later, briefly infiltrating a town, the old man looks up a prostitute he once loved -- he explains to the boy that she's his Maria -- only to be spurned because he never answered a multitude of letters she sent him imploring him for aid or mercy. He answers, with plausibility and complete honesty as far as we can tell, that he never saw any of the letters. During his odyssey -- he hopes to reach the coast, where loyalists are to pick him up in a boat -- he discovers many things he never imagined or considered. In a way, it's as much a learning experience for him as it is for the boy.

Later still, he falls in with some escaped (or liberated) political prisoners, many of whom can't walk because beating their bare feet was routine torture in the President's prisons. The old man comes alarmingly close to growing Christlike -- the ever-growing price on his head has already made him a parody of a folkloric outlaw hero -- as he washes their bloody, infected feet and carries one of his own victims on his back. It becomes his turn to forgive, albeit quietly, when he learns that one of the prisoners was involved in the conspiracy that killed his son and daughter-and-law. He fantasizes sacrificing his safety to take revenge on the man, but the fact is that a forgiving attitude is a practical survival skill in our protagonist's situation. So he delivers the man to his home, where his beloved is waiting -- except she didn't wait, so the man kills himself with a pitchfork to the throat. The burden the old man took upon himself was a futile one.

Finally, despite the scarecrow ruse, the old man and the boy are caught, pulled from a hidey-hole on the beach. Makhmalbaf clearly has the fates of Saddam and Khadafi in mind as a mob drags the President around, trying to make up its collective mind on how to kill him while one of the political prisoners desperately tries to distract the boy from the horror that seems inevitable. Another former prisoner makes a passionate speech against the planned lynching, making the predictable liberal point about the mob being no better than the man they'd punish. The old President is stoic, or resigned, throughout, waiting patiently as Makhmalbaf struggles to figure out what to do with him. We're left with the suggestion that the appropriate punishment is simply to make him dance for democracy, but we see the boy dance once more instead, as he has loved to do. This seems flat and unsatisfactory, but ask yourself what would have been more satisfying and you may find it hard to answer. The President has painted itself into a corner, or more literally it has forced itself to the water's edge with no option of retreat. There's no ultimate sense of a lesson learned, nor much of a political moral. Until that final flop it's a film well worth seeing, vividly envisioned by the director and cinematographer Konstantin Mindia Esadze, and commandingly performed by Gomiashvili. And if Makhmalbaf doesn't come up with a good answer for what to do with his President and tyrants like him, it's not as if the rest of us have come up with anything better.

No comments: