The Children's Hour

George Washington would not be so confounding were it less polished or more overtly fantastic—but the sense of failed magic realism is what gives the movie its pervasive sadness, which is to say, its magic. Having balanced his movie on the edge between poignance and absurdity (and worked without a net), Green provides the perfect vanishing act—leaving the audience wondering what he could possibly do for an encore.

A Time for Drunken Horses, one of the two Iranian first features that shared this year's Camera d'Or at Cannes, begins with the sound of an adult interviewing a child but, compared to George Washington, this movie—set mainly in the Kurdish village where filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi was born—is straightforward observation.

Harmony careens: Evanofski and Holden in George Washington.
photo: Cowboy Booking
Harmony careens: Evanofski and Holden in George Washington.


George Washington
Written and directed by David Gordon Green
A Cowboy Booking release Opens October 27

A Time for Drunken Horses
Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi
A Shooting Gallery release Opens October 27

A band of stoical children, saddled with adult responsibilities, compete for menial jobs in the village marketplace or, more arduously, serve as smugglers transporting contraband goods across the Iran-Iraq border. Gradually, it emerges that the protagonists are four or five orphaned siblings—one of whom, 15-year-old Madi, has failed to grow beyond the size of a small toddler and cries like a baby when the doctor gives him a shot. Cared for by his younger brother and sister (the performers are apparently dramatizing actual relationships), Madi is doomed to die in 10 days unless money can be raised for an operation to keep him alive for another six months.

Underdog tenacity in the face of hopeless odds is the indie credo. The 30-year-old Ghobadi, who was Abbas Kiarostami's assistant on The Wind Will Carry Us, also set in Kurdistan, is Iran's first Kurdish director. Perhaps the implications of this will be explained by the critic for a distinguished local weekly who, in the year's most smugly brainless review, made the "sociological" observation that Kiarostami was like a third-world pest with a useless knowledge of English. For his part, Ghobadi labors under no compulsion to explain exactly what is going on. Most scenes plunge the viewer into the middle of a situation. The smuggling is blatant and messy—when Iraqi border guards routinely impound a truck full of contraband texts, the kids scramble home in the snow, perhaps for miles. (The title for this single-minded, sometimes harrowing movie comes from the smugglers' practice of dosing their horses with vodka to keep them working in the cold.)

At one point, Madi's eldest sister betroths herself to an Iraqi Kurd, imagining that this will help arrange for the operation. Madi is literally bundled up as part of the bridal procession, but the groom's family reneges on the deal and refuses to take him. Ultimately, they buy off the bride's siblings with a mule that the youngest boy will use to smuggle Madi into Iraq. It's a bit startling to see the movie put forth the idea that Iraq is a more technologically advanced (and even safer) country than Iran. As the children brave the minefields to cross the border, the movie does as well.

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