A Time for Drunken Horses

Of late, many of the Iranian movies that reach the USA tend to have children as their
protagonists in order to circumvent the censors. This does not mean that the filmmakers are not
creating intriguing and captivating stories, far from it. Majid Majidi's
Children of Heaven
and Color of Paradise were deeply moving depictions of the plight of
the poor in an urban and rural setting (respectively).
A Time of Drunken Horses marks
the directorial debut of Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish moviemaker who has set his tale in and
around his home province. Kurdistan is on the mountainous border of Iran and Iraq and perhaps
is best known to Americans as the area where Saddam Hussein engaged in a brutal genocide of
the indigenous population via nerve gas attacks resulting in the creation of one of the United
Nations' no fly zones. Ghobadi's film doesn't deal with that harsh reality, but his grim portrait of
what life is like in this remote area is engrossing and eye-opening.

As with many Iranian filmmakers, Ghobadi employs a primarily nonprofessional cast. His story
focuses on one family, where the mother has died, the father makes his living as a smuggler and
the five children, including a crippled dwarf, eke out a living. Instead of spending their days in
school, Ayoub, his sister Amaneh and their handicapped sibling Madi travel many miles across
the Iraqi border to work in a bazaar, doing whatever odd jobs they can, from wrapping glassware
to toting heavy packages. On their way back to Iran, the children are asked to smuggle notepads
in their clothing. When a border patrol stops and searches them, the guards impound the vehicle
forcing the children to make their way home over the desolate snow-covered mountains.

When their father dies as a result of his illegal activities, Ayoub assumes the position of head of
the household and struggles to make money to pay for food and medicine for Madi. The doctor
informs him that Madi is in need of an operation that will only prolong his short life, but
nonetheless, Ayoub and his siblings become determined to find a way to raise the money. Of
course, this is a monumental task for an adult, never mind a child. His sister Rojine agrees to an
arranged marriage with the guarantee that her husband-to-be's family will provide enough money
for the operation. Because their uncle has arranged the nuptials, Ayoub feels emasculated and
impotent. His sister soothes him, pointing out that she knows what she is doing and agreed
because it seems to be the only way to save their sick brother. Unfortunately, fate has other
things in mind and Ayoub must determine another course of action.

A Time for Drunken Horses is both visually beautiful yet bleak and unsparing. Ghobadi
captures the stunning vistas of the snowy mountains but also infuses the story with a sense of the
family's love and devotion. It is a powerful evocation of a hardscrabble life and his amateur cast
helps to make it believable. The film's title refers to the smugglers' animals, who are given water
laced with alcohol so they can more easily be led across the treacherous mountain pathways. For
animal lovers, there are some disturbing scenes when the inebriated pack animals (mules, actually,
not horses) collapse because they are drunk and their owners whip and beat them in an attempt to
outrun an ambush by soldiers. The film also ends somewhat abruptly for those used to having
everything tied up neatly Hollywood-style. But Ghobadi seems to be making the statement that
life will continue for these scrappy youngsters in much the same way and that nothing will come
easily for them.
A Time for Drunken Horses serves as a testament to the will of the
Kurds and introduces a potent voice to world cinema.

Rating:                   B
MPAA Rating:       NONE
Running time:         80 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.