Both emerged from relative cinematic obscurity to become world leaders in quality. Both featured small films about family relationships. Both emphasized domestic interiors and natural exteriors. Both put script and acting above all other components of narrative, and both feature some of the best cinematography in the world.
Sweden in the '60s was basically a two-man show, with Ingmar Bergman writing and directing, and the incomparable Sven Nyqvist shooting some of the most beautiful and exacting imagery that we will ever see.
Iran, on the other hand, has an embarrassment of riches in such directors as Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven), Ebrahim Forouzesh (The Jar), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), and now Bahman Ghobadi, who makes his feature directing debut with A Time for Drunken Horses.
Iranian films are tied together by more than their national heritage. Iranian cinema, in general, has focused on extremely naturalistic acting, quotidian situations that somehow become almost unbearably intense, and children.
The latter is a result, in part, of the Islamic laws under which Iranian cineastes practice their art. It's difficult to use adult female actors because of rules about who women may and may not be seen with in public. Essentially, an adult actress cannot be filmed in intimate settings with actors who are not in her immediate family. Children, however, face no such laws, so a director wishing to include women in his films will often turn to a story about children.
This does not make these films children's films. On the contrary, children would probably find them rather scary at best, and more likely incomprehensible. As a result, Iran has produced, in these children's stories for adults, a new genre of cinema, something that hasn't happened since the advent of film noir in the '30s.
Entering into this fold is A Time for Drunken Horses, the first feature film ever shot in the Kurdish language. It tells the story of Ayoub, a pre-adolescent who must take care of his two sisters and his older, but severely handicapped, brother.
The fatherless family lives in the mountainous Kurdish region on the border between Iran and Iraq, and Ayoub and his youngest sister Ameneh work packaging goods, smuggling minor consumer items, and hauling freight along and across the border.
The film is punctuated by occasional voice-over narrations from Ameneh, who is played by Ameneh Ekhtiars-dini. She looks to be about 10 years old, and, in what is the norm for Iranian child-actors, gives an uncanny performance. There is none of the worldly precociousness or moppetry of American kid stars here. Instead, actor and role become a seamless whole, something even the best adult stars are hard pressed to attain.
Ameneh basically steals the show, though the narrative focuses more often an Ayoub. As Ayoub struggles to supply his family with food, and keep at least one of his siblings in school, he has the added burden of dealing with Madi, his older brother who is disfigured, handicapped and of limited intellect.
Costs for medical care exceed what the family can afford, so they enter into an agreement to marry off Rojin, the eldest sister, to an Iraqi family. She's to bring Madi with her, in hopes that he can attain medical care across the border.
In a beautiful, snowy scene, Madi, Rojin and Ayoub trek out to the illegal border crossing to meet the family Rojin is to marry into. When they arrive, the matriarch of the family refuses to accept Madi, and Rojin is taken away screaming and crying, forcing Ayoub to carry Madi back across the mountains.
This could easily be manipulative tear-jerker stuff in the hands of a shlockier director, but Ghobadi cuts the emotion with a very plain attitude toward the lives of his characters. While their situation is tragic, it isn't maudlin, because Ghobadi portrays the difficulties of life in the mountain village with a matter-of-fact realism that prevents the story of Ayoub and his family from standing out too strongly against the economic problems of his Kurdish neighbors. Instead of this being the story of a tragic family, it's more an emblematic tale of the troubles of the region, and while it is still emotionally affecting, this keeps it from becoming falsely overwrought.
Though perhaps not as perfectly constructed as The White Balloon (easily one of the best films of the last 10 years), A Time For Drunken Horses has no trouble measuring up to the extremely high standards of recent Iranian films. It's a feature no movie-lover should miss, and, with its wide release in the Shooting Gallery Film Series, it will serve the broader public as an introduction to the exquisite cinema of Iran.