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The President

The President

Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's anatomy of tyranny in collapse

'One day, my grandson, all of this will be yours…': Misha Gomiashvili as the eponymous President with grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili)

What’s it really like to be a dictator? Or president, if we put it more circumspectly, as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf does in his new film of that name – though this President clearly believes he’s of the “for-life” variety, if not even a rung higher given that the mode of address in this contemporary court is, “Your Majesty”.

In fact the plans for dynasty are well in place, as the first scene of The President nicely illustrates. Its eponymous hero (Misha Gomiashvili) is taking a break from signing death warrants to take his young grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) over that familiar lesson, “One day, my (grand)son, all of this will be yours…” They’re in a mountain hide-away looking down on a modern city, the brightly lit boulevards of which we’ve seen in opening credits over a radio voice intoning, “God tends to our happiness from the sky, our President from the earth”. To prove his omnipotence Gomiashvili’s character picks up the presidential direct line and commands that all the lights of the city below him be turned off; they are duly extinguished. Then he passes the receiver to his grandson, who orders them to be turned on again, then off, emphasising how close the caprices of an absolute ruler are to those of a child.

They trade insults as to which has done what to bring the edifice crashing down

Then back on again. But this time the city remains dark, and gunfire rings out below: a coup is beginning. Makhmalbaf too leaves us in the dark about just where his drama is set, signposting it only, like Abi Morgan in Splendour (currently at the Donmar Warehouse), as “an unknown country”. There’s no shortage of possible locations out there in the world, of course, and the film’s allegorical nature doesn’t preclude the director’s native Iran. Makhmalbaf himself has said that the revolutions of the Arab Spring provided his inspiration (and there’s a clear allusion late on to the fate of Libya’s Gaddafi), but he made his film in Georgia, in the Georgian language, hinting strongly that these developments are taking place somewhere in the post-Soviet space.

One darkly sardonic detail thrown in as the presidential family flees by limousine to the airport would certainly be right at home in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. As well as his grandson and wife, the President is accompanied by two squabbling daughters – we learn later that his son and daughter-in-law have at some point been killed by rebels – who apparently haven’t spoken to one another in years (they even threaten not to get on the same plane together). They trade insults as to which of them has done what to bring the edifice crashing down. It was all the fault of the other’s husband, his Swiss bank accounts and torturer allegations, one sister shouts. “At least I had a charity for human rights,” comes the retaliation. “So did I.” This was clearly a regime that went to any lengths to enrich itself, plundering the country to furnish the unreal splendour of the palace now being hurriedly abandoned, the trappings of tyranny (look out for a revealing detail with shoes) falling away in a moment.

Makhmalbaf directs this first half-hour masterfully and with plenty of surreal touches, from the opening Viennese waltzes to the pompous master of ceremonies leading the military band that's lined up by the departing jet. But the President himself was never going to leave, promising to bring the situation back under control, and his grandson now refuses too, capriciously demanding to be reunited with his palace child dancing partner, Maria, who will remain his fixation through the film. But as the cortege returns to the city it’s clear that the balance of power has altered, the army is changing sides (scenes of street strife, pictured above), and after another nicely played airport reversal, with real blood now flowing in the limousine and its escort vanishing, it’s a question of whether the pair can escape at all.

The most generous way to characterise the remaining 90-odd minutes of Makhmalbaf’s film would be to see it as a journey of discovery on the part of his lead character that reveals exactly what his rule has brought the country to, with its grinding poverty, and a clarity that much more blood will be shed as order breaks down. There’s some degree of tension, slight though it is, as to whether the fleeing ex-leader will make it to wherever he seems to be heading (the hint at any such plan is tenuous, however), but it’s what he sees on his somewhat episodic journey that’s meant to count. After the strong sense of direction of the opening scenes, the narrative register becomes too flexible, the film too diverse in its movement towards the fabular, too random in expanding this central story into those of other characters encountered on the way.

It’s a strange combination of Prince and the Pauper motifs – the first thing the wanderers have to do is steal clothes for disguise, the erstwhile leader passing himself off first as a street musician, later as a priest – and even perhaps of Lear. There’s certainly a sense of that deposed monarch’s journey through desolation – both in the potent barren landscapes of Konstantin-Mindia Esadze’s cinematography, and the depravity to which human beings have sunk (particularly brutal is a road-block scene in which a wedding party is waylaid, the accompanying violence played out, in very Georgian fashion, to song). But there’s little sense here of Lear’s journey bringing any inner wisdom (nor that he elicits our sympathy), while the child’s naivety – not only the extent to which he’s been so sheltered in the past, but his repeating questions, What does dead mean? What is torture? – doesn’t develop either.

There’s a distinctly programmatic feel to the President revisiting a woman he’d clearly been close to in a distant past, now a prostitute – tellingly, she’s called Maria, too – but that impassioned cameo from actress Ia Sukhitashvili does catch outstandingly the sheer degradation to which society has come. A prolonged encounter with tortured political prisoners, now released, is much less effective, broadening the thematic landscape away from any central motif (if, by now, one remains). Gomiashvili’s character, complete with straggly beard and now dressed in priestly black (pictured above), looks not unlike the late Tolstoy, and the fluctuations of late episodes – between vengeance and the suggestion of forgiveness – have an almost distractingly Tolstoyan dialectic to them. As for the very final scene, Makhmalbaf leaves us to “read” it for ourselves completely.    

The film’s central pairing is undeniably strong, Gomiashvili catching the transition from his character’s initial Cossack-like command to bewildered quasi-pilgrim, Orvelashvili the quizzical dismay of the open-faced boy (who’s latterly, in fact, disguised as a girl). But Makhmalbaf’s script, co-written with his wife Marziyeh Meshkiny, doesn’t finally compensate for loss of narrative direction. It's an impressive effort though.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The President

 

The most generous way to characterise the remaining 90-odd minutes of Makhmalbaf’s film would be to see it as a journey of discovery on the part of his lead character

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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