Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s despot-on-the-run satire gestures to Eastern Europe and the fallout of the Arab spring. It’s a gutsy and vivid parable, says Peter Bradshaw
Perhaps even Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s most devoted admirers weren’t expecting his latest film - here opening the Festival’s Orrizonti sidebar section - to be quite so absorbing and gripping. But that’s what it is, and the director discloses a unsuspected gift for satire and suspense, along with some old-fashioned storytelling gusto. Makhmalbaf is the co-screenwriter with his partner, Marziyeh Meshkiny - herself an established film-maker - and they have between them created a gutsy drama and a vivid parable. It’s the sort of movie that Milos Foreman might have directed forty years ago but it feels contemporary and as sharp as a tack. This is a really good film, and - startling though it sounds - Makhmalbaf might even have a rather commercial property on his hands.
The story concerns an ageing dictator in an unnamed country, known only as the President, played by Georgian actor Misha Gomiashvilli. When his exhausted regime’s sadism, cynicism and brutality become too much to bear, there is a coup. His grotesquely spoilt wife and daughters flee the country but the President is left behind with his adored grandson (Dachi Orvelashvilli), whose parents have been killed in the revolution. The President has always had a mawkish fondness for this boy - a projection of his own infantilised status and pampered privilege. They steal ragged clothes and a guitar and the old man and child have to disguise themselves as a travelling street musician and his dancing monkey-boy, and live among the people they oppressed; the bounty on their heads rises inexorably and all the time they fear discovery and violent death at the hands of a newly disloyal military which the President (clearly a former army officer) indoctrinated in savagery.
Makhmalbaf’s satire gestures to both eastern Europe and the fallout of the Arab spring. His President could be one of any number of tinpot leaders once bolstered by the US and the West as bulwarks against communism and Islamism, and then repurposed as bogeymen to cow public opinion at home. In fact, the brutal ending of this film appears to be inspired by the last days of Saddam. But the President also has something of Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet conceit. He is the sort of military stuffed shirt and Kremlin time-server who might conceivably be installed in Eastern Ukraine, and whose arrogance and incompetence will incubate despair well into the twenty-first century.
Of course, the action of the film arguably does not address the emerging, complex situation of the Arab spring, a contest not simply of old and new, oppressor and oppressed, bad guy and good guy - but a range of competing interests, schisms and ideologies. His movie was clearly conceived before the new developments in Iraq and Syria and so perhaps The President looks a little simplistic. But it has power and punch and conviction. The opening scenes are actually very exciting as the President’s Zil- style limousine is surrounded by the mob. Who knew Makhmalbaf could direct something like an action thriller with such relish and skill? I think Paul Greengrass might enjoy those sequences.
Other stranger resonances are detectable as the President and his little boy begin their ordeal. Makhmalbaf allows us to see glimpses of Lear and the Fool, and the long-haired President looks like a Christ parody or a holy beggar from a Tolstoy tale. When they have to pretend to be scarecrows and curl up in cardboard boxes, the fugitive pair resemble characters from Beckett.
The other comparison that springs vulgarly to mind is Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. But perhaps the point is that Baron Cohen’s satire and Makhmalbaf’s satire each take something from Mark Twain - a grisly prince in a world of paupers.
The President is a striking movie - and a bold and challenging change of directorial pace from Mohsen Makhmalbaf.