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Review: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘The President’ Wins Gold Hugo At Chicago International Film Festival

the president

The President has a lot going for it both as a topical dramatic satire on revolutions in the wake of the Arab Spring and as a personal closer look at the people at the center – the President and his family. Early on in the film, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s brings together the first of many striking juxtapositions during a scene where the President (Misha Gomiashvili) and his grandson, Dachi (Dachi Orvelashvili) look out from their lofty palace turning the city’s lights off and on per the 5-year-old’s request. That kind of mercurial behavior is characteristic of a dictator not a president, as the title indicates. When the city lights get turned off a second time and city erupts in an uprising, it’s clear the President hasn’t had to consider the distinction between President and Dictator – until now.

Makhmalbaf set his dwelling on what it takes to recover from such a large-scale breach of trust between the government and its people in an unnamed country. Lacking specificity allows the film to more broadly apply to the diverse countries still living under authoritarian rule. While on the run from militants, the two make a pit stop to go to the bathroom and Dachi protests afterwards that he has never had to wipe himself before. The President says he hasn’t either. Apart from learning basic life skills, this movie isn’t about the President learning the faults of actions, but rather about them being outsiders in a country that is only ostensibly theirs.

The film’s wandering protagonists harken back to Iranian New Wave predecessors German New Cinema and the French New Wave. Films like Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond feature protagonists getting beaten down wherever they go by the monotony of society in the United States and France, respectively. The difference here is that unlike their unlucky Western counterparts, here the President directly caused the civil unrest.

Perhaps the Grandson is innocent, but the beginning of the film indicates that he was well on his way to becoming his grandfather. As Makhmalbaf’s 28th film, he has mastered capturing several disparate story essentials with sophistication in both style and production. We watch as the President is driven down the street, passing his presidential banners burning, each one more alight than the last. The weight of the scene is conveyed only by the muted sound of smoldering fire.

The President and Dachi are the only characters seen consistently throughout the movie, but Gomiashvili’s stoic portrayal of the President wisely makes it difficult to understand his mental processes. His strong, but subdued, performance fortunately allows young Dachi to come out in full force. The inclusion of the grandson often draws out the truth of the situation by continually forcing the President to translate the extremely complex situation into something simple enough for Dachi to understand.

Moments of tenderness frequently follow moments of harshness, serving as striking juxtapositions that hit home the man the President represents to his family is world’s away from how the people he’s now surrounded with see him. On the lam, the President forces an impoverished barber to cut his hair and hand over what little clothes he has as disguises. That night, however, the President holds Dachi’s hand through their beds made of cardboard boxes to provide some semblance of comfort.

The President won the Gold Hugo for Best Film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival and for good reason. As a satire on both dictators and violence of the common person during revolution, this film gives shape to a film that could seem aimless and hard to comprehend. Similarly the disjuncture between palace life and life in the countryside adds some levity to a film that has the potential to be devastating.

At certain points in the film, however, the notion of satire inserts itself too prominently with lines clearly added to serve as social commentary that detract from the movie’s subtle power. Scenes occasionally border on melodrama at these points, but as part of a cohesive whole they still work. Makhmalbaf’s quasi-exile from Iran has likely colored the writing of this film, but hope of a peaceful resolution in this unnamed country still comes across as possible though definitely not easy. To the film’s credit nothing is deemed certain except that people are always in war for power.