Wednesday, January 5, 2011
A Time for Drunken Horses
The eponymous horses are in fact mules which are employed to smuggle cargoes of tires and other articles across the snow covered and land mine spangled mountains which form the border between Iran and Iraq. They are routinely fed liquor in order to help them make the arduous journey across the harsh tundra like terrain. The title is also a satiric reference to the warring nations (who have more the obstinacy of mules than equine dignity), and the impoverished dwellers of the region who are the victims of their political vendetta.
The impassioned semi documentary centers on the vicissitudes of an orphaned family comprising two brothers and two sisters living with their uncle. All the cast retain their real life names in the film. The younger brother Madi is crippled and in urgent need of medical attention and in danger of his life. He is the MacGuffin around which this magnificent anthropological or political essay is constructed. Smuggling is the precarious means of livelihood of these simple and tough mountain folk, and any operation is liable to end in disaster due to gunfire and ambushes.
In the course of the narrative, we participate in the routines of these Kurdish Iranians. The elder sister Rojin is married off with the understanding that the husband's family will care for and provide for the desperately needed surgery of Madi. The bargain is not kept and instead a mule is given as dowry. The simple marriage ceremony and the almost funereal procession over the mountains is beautifully captured. We catch the life in glimpses of a class-room, a busy and quarrelsome market place, or a fist-fight over a matter of payment. The younger sister Amaneh badly wants a new exercise book, which her doting brother delivers right in her class-room. Madi screams as his hind is punctured with a hypodermic needle. Madi as Madi gives a wonderfully natural performance as a half intelligent and half moronic cripple of indeterminate age. The primitive life and poverty is invaded with symbols of the modern world like gleaming bicycles, tires, gunfire and land mines. It's the picture of a world in the sad and painful throes of transition.
This anthropological panorama is seamlessly embedded in the moving dilemma of these siblings hurled against the ongoing blizzard of national hostilities. The cinematography does justice to the bleak denuded magnificence of the landscape. The canvas is mostly sheet white with a cold, sunless sky and the only colors are of man made objects like clothing.
The overall impression is of poignant helplessness of tiny human figures moving across the harshly intimidating mountains, pawns in a mindless chess game. This is a masterpiece with western movie making standards and an Oriental sensibility.