No country, in the last few years, has made so many politically vital films dealing with children than Iran. One of the reasons is that conditions in Iran -- like many countries with a large population and an insufficient distribution of wealth -- are rather poor for children.Another reason is that the filmmakers cloak their stories within the context of "children" type stories in order to avoid censorship. In doing so they provide many humanitarian and political issues under an innocuous surface. Often children are presented within the context of adults and various scenarios, which show both general and specific problems in Iran. Some films, though, outright show the plight of children.
TIME OF DRUNKEN HORSES is an exemplary film in regard to this particular subject. Itís about Kurdish and Iranian orphans near the border of Iran and Iraq who have little schooling and are so poor that they must work from a young age just to eat. The young boy in this story, Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), cares for his two sisters and his older brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini) who suffers from a disease that has stunted his growth and deformed him.
Everyone in the family sacrifices themselves for Madi. Ayoubís older sister yields to pressure and marries an Iraqi man whose family promises to take Madi with them to Iraq to get an operation -- but then they renege on the deal. Ayoub then gets a dangerous job smuggling goods over the mountains into Iraq, which he hopes will earn him enough money for the operation. The irony of these sacrifices is pretty grim though because it turns out the operation will prolong Madiís life by only six more months.
Ayoub has his heart in the right place but itís pretty obvious Ė as it is in the Italian Neorealist films of the 1950ís Ė that the chances of his success are very low. The good thing though -- for viewers who like their movies to feel gritty and authentic Ė is that unlike Disney or American films in general, this is not a film about simple success or failure. Instead itís a film about the complexities of survival on a daily basis.
Director Bahman Ghobadi treads closely to tragic territory but he manages to keep the material from getting sentimental. For example, sometimes he relies (too much) on reaction shots of poor Madi -- who sheds copious tears when he is given a needle shot -- yet itís all presented without sentimentality. Ghobadi too uses very little music and, thankfully, none of it undermines his story.
The title refers to a tactic that the workers use on their pack animals. So harsh are the conditions for the horses and donkeys that the workers add alcohol to the water so that it is easier for them to get up and over the rough mountainous terrain.
Towards the end HORSES director Ghohadi sets up the standard narrative conflict that seems to ask the question: "Will Ayoub make it across the border to save his brother without getting shot by the border police?" It seems a rhetorical question though, because he isnít interested in a resolution. Instead he lets the question linger for a while and become its own answer. Will he or wonít he? It doesnít matter. It only matters that he tries. And therein lies the hopeful spirit of this film.If you care about movies that make a difference and give you a view of a world youíve never seen then it matters that you try to get to the theater to see this film.-- Matt Langdon