The penultimate entry in Shooting Gallery’s fall series of independent films (for details see movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is another in the recent spate of excellent Iranian films centering on children. But Bahman Ghobadi’s picture eschews the gentle whimsy that permeated “The White Balloon” and “Children of Heaven,” and even to some extent the darker “The Color of Paradise.” “A Time for Drunken Horses” is instead a stark portrait of Kurdish orphans forced into smuggling to survive as a family; told in almost documentary style, its tone recalls that of the shattering neorealist masterpieces of the fifties, although the picture is filmed in color on the snowswept mountains of Kurdistan rather than in black-and-white on the urban streets of post-war Italy.
The picture is set in an area of the most abject poverty, the northwestern fringe of Iran bordering on Iraq. A large Kurdish family subsists on occasional work for the children in a nearby town bazaar, wrapping goods for transport, and the smuggling efforts of their father, one of many villagers engaged in transporting truck tires across the cold, dangerous frontier on mules (which are given alcohol to prepare them for the difficult trek). When the father is killed, either in one of the frequent ambushes or by a land mine, young Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) becomes the head of the house, and has to drop out of school to support his sisters Rojin (Rojin Younessi) and Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) and try to raise money for an operation for his crippled, stunted brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini). The heartbreaking tale of Ayoub’s travails at home and on the smuggling trail is narrated by his younger sister Ameneh in tones all the more powerful for being so matter-of-fact, and the simplicity of technique, in both the photography and the direction, gives the narrative extraordinary impact, just as in De Sica’s classic films.
The performances by the non-professional cast, especially the younger members, are very strong. Ayoub captures every nuance of his character, from the occasional moment of joy to the deepest sadness, and his affection for his siblings never seems false. Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini has one of those wonderfully expressive faces so characteristic of the children who have appeared in recent Iranian pictures, and her combination of determination and naivete is very moving. Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini is perfectly cast. The remaining children and adult characters are all secondary to these three, but many of them etch indelible, if brief, portraits of pain.
If one dissects the screenplay of “A Time for Drunken Horses,” of course, he could criticize its obviously manipulative elements: the notion of a protagonist struggling to raise money for an operation for a beloved relative is as hoary a plot device as one can imagine (and that’s the way it strikes one, for example, in Lars von Trier’s current “Dancer in the Dark”). But this film captures the bleak, unforgiving milieu in which it’s set so well, and depicts the love among its young characters so tellingly, that it virtually silences the criticism that might arise from such analysis. Ghobadi has made a simple, achingly real picture that reveals a world of which most of us are totally unaware and touches the heart as well.