A Time For Drunken Horses is a poetic but somewhat misleading title. Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi is referring to mules used by smugglers who put alcohol in their drinking water to help them stay warm during the snowy trek between Iran and Iraq. Joining this illegal caravan — with the inherent danger of border patrols and the unscrupulous smugglers themselves — is one of the few sources of income available to the Iranian Kurdish community. While Ghobadi has created a potent time capsule of suffering caused by war (farmers can’t cultivate fields full of land mines) and sanctions (which create the black market), the heart of this quietly devastating film is an orphaned family.
Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) is barely into his teens, but he’s the caretaker of four siblings. He’s closest to his precocious sister, Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiar-Dini), a promising student who helps care for their brother, a dwarf with serious medical problems. The family rallies around a cause — getting their ailing sibling an operation — even though it may just be an exercise in futility. For these children, “the future” doesn’t consist of abstract promises, it merely means tomorrow, and they will sacrifice anything in order to alleviate the suffering of one. Their quiet determination and dignity are reflected in the beautiful simplicity of Ghobadi’s visual style.
There’s nothing flashy about A Time For Drunken Horses; it’s just storytelling at its unvarnished best. Ghobadi embraces neorealism as not just a style but a social construct. As with Italian filmmakers chronicling the effects of World War II, the subject here is poor people struggling to survive amid political upheaval.
For Eurocentric American audiences, this film also offers an important view of a culture which has rarely been portrayed beyond simplistic stereotypes. It reminds us why foreign-language movies — and a truly world cinema — still matter.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Star Gratiot (Gratiot at 15 Mile Rd.), as part of the Shooting Gallery film series. Call 810-791-5427.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].