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A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES

A-

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.

GOYA IN BORDEAUX

Grade: A-

When the picture begins with an extraordinarily vibrant scene of a gutted bull’s carcass morphing into the face of its dying subject, it’s immediately clear that “Goya in Bordeaux” is not going to be a conventional portrait of the artist as an old man. Visually extravagant and aurally luxuriant, intriguingly episodic and thematically enigmatic, both sumptuous and visionary, Carlos Saura’s amazing film is a remarkable achievement which instructs not only about the circumstances of the painter’s life, but also about the essence of his style.

Saura’s previous film, “Tango” (1998), was striking to look at too, but its construction was weak and its plot overly obvious. Here, working again with brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (whose earlier efforts included “Last Tango in Paris,” “One from the Heart,” “The Last Emperor” and “Little Buddha”), the Spanish director has gotten things almost precisely right. “Goya in Bordeaux” is astonishingly beautiful, but to a purpose: its visual palette is clearly designed to portray cinematically the look of its subject’s art (much as John Maybury’s 1998 “Love Is the Devil” tried to capture the style of Francis Bacon, though in this case the result is gorgeous rather than unpleasant). And the pictorial splendor is now matched with a structure that complements rather than weakening it. The scenario is basically told from the perspective of the infirm, often hallucinating Goya, and so its fragmentary, dreamlike presentation of selected episodes from his life is perfectly understandable. Yet by the time the film is over, we’ve been nicely introduced to the painter’s political liberalism in the face of monarchical authoritarianism in his native Spain, to his complicated love life and family circumstances, and to his unique artistic aspirations. It’s surprising how much a viewer learns from Saura’s film, even though it never adopts a didactic or lecturing tone. Moreover, the action is beautifully abetted by a superb score by Roque Banos, which includes provincial rhythms to accompany dance sequences, quasi-classical bits, and excellent general background music, adding to the imagery rather than simply accompanying it; and the sound mix by Carlos Faruolo brings it all lovingly to the ear.

The picture is also splendidly acted. Francisco Rabal is ferociously fine as the aged artist, with Jose Coronado doing a lower-key but still impressive turn as his younger self. The supporting cast, mostly playing Goya’s former lovers, wives, family members or cronies, is excellent across the board, but special mention must be made of Dafne Fernandez, a lovely young girl who is by turns playful and affecting as Rosario, the daughter to whom the elderly Goya confides secrets from his past and with whom he celebrates his art.

For almost its entire running time “Goya in Bordeaux” is an entrancing film in which virtually every element seems exactly on target. At the end, unfortunately, Saura makes a serious miscalculation by having a Spanish theatrical troupe, La Fura dels Baus, “bring to life” the components of Goya’s “Disasters of War” series, showing the brutal effects of the Napoleonic campaigns on the Iberian peninsula. The idea might have been a good one, but while the execution is glorious in terms of the backgrounds and colors, the human performers can’t match them. It’s a cinematic high-wire act which would require a conjurer of almost supernatural ability to bring off, and the director just misses; it probably would have been better simply to focus on the original paintings without trying to convert them into action.

But while this relative failure ends his picture on less exalted a note than one might have wished, Saura is clearly working at the peak of his powers through most of the film. “Goya in Bordeaux” is visually and aurally ravishing and dramatically powerful as well. It’s easily one of the most imaginative and fully-realized cinematic portraits of the inner life of the artist ever made.