International cinema has an irresistible new pair of reprobates: middle-aged brothers who can do no right in their lives and no wrong before the camera. Barat (Faegh Mohammadi), who is famous in his native Kurdistan as a singer and woodwind player, combines the styles of the Hell’s Angels and the world-music circuit. Proud owner of a motorcycle and sidecar, he dresses in a traditional belted robe accessorized with a blue headcloth and wraparound shades, the possession of which requires him to parade about with his matinee-idol chin stuck imperturbably in the air. He’s the slicked-back bachelor of the pair; whereas chubby Audeh (Allah-Morad Rashtian), a singer and drum-banger, behaves in the excited manner of a man with seven wives, thirteen daughters and the halo hair of Gene Shalit.
Whenever these two stand side by side, playing their instruments and crying out old Kurdish tunes, Marooned in Iraq bounces into crazy, impudent life. Written and directed by the Iranian Kurd Bahman Ghobadi (whose first feature was the well-received A Time for Drunken Horses), the film revels in the cluelessness, vanity and open-throttle talent of Barat and Audeh: characters who seem like overgrown kids most of the time, but who become so outsize when they perform that the camera has to back off and give them room. When I close my eyes and recall Marooned in Iraq, I picture Barat and Audeh in a low-angle medium shot, motorhead hipster next to teddy bear, as they wail away at somebody’s wedding. I envision mountain roads under a crisp blue sky, fields of snow, crowds of children, a shack that houses a steamy cafe.
I also see a vast refugee camp, its lanterns dotting a midnight valley; I make out a ravine in dim afternoon light, where dozens of women are sobbing over a mass grave. And I hear, mixed in with the soundtrack music, the swoosh and boom of jet planes going on bombing runs.
An amalgam of road movie, ethnographic musical, feminist satire and political protest, Marooned in Iraq is the story of how Barat and Audeh answer the summons of their father, the imperious old master musician Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi), who insists that they travel with him from Iran to Iraq. Word has reached him that the fourth and last in his series of wives, Hanareh, is in danger on the Iraqi side and wants his help. Never mind that she left Mirza twenty-three years ago, running off with his best friend and musical partner; never mind that Barat and Audeh have only contempt for her. If Hanareh needs him, then nothing will hold Mirza back–not the bandits on the road, not the bombing sorties and certainly not the full truth about his mission, which he grandly conceals from his sons to get them to come along.
As Mirza and his boys proceed on their way, the landscape of dusty, warm-colored crags becomes wintry and white, and the film’s tone shifts from raucous, semi-comic anarchy (in a style reminiscent of Emir Kusturica) to one of chaotic suffering. Clearly, Ghobadi is taking his characters deeper and deeper into troubled territory–although the precise nature of the trouble remains intriguingly ambiguous.
Refugees are pouring across the border. There have been massacres on the Iraqi side, attacks with poison gas, roundups of whichever able-bodied men may have survived. The date is left unstated; but given these events, the year would seem to be 1991-92, with Saddam Hussein being the chief target of Ghobadi’s protest. (Although Ghobadi is careful in interviews not to endorse the US war in Iraq, he has plenty to say against Saddam.) But just when you think you’ve fixed the story’s date and meaning, it slips away again. You may deduce that Hanareh left her husband and Iran around the time of the Islamic revolution, when she was banned from pursuing a career as a professional singer. So the ayatollahs, too, would seem to be objects of Ghobadi’s wrath (unstated objects, given his country of residence); and if you count forward twenty-three years from when they took power, then Marooned in Iraq must be happening in the present, as much as in the early 1990s.
A neat trick, this bitemporality; and it’s only one of many that Ghobadi pulls off. A filmmaker with a brisk, fluent, varied style, he can move from lovely, quasi-documentary passages (such as a visit to a brick-making factory) to images of poetic fantasy (a flurry of paper airplanes tossed by schoolchildren) to outspoken protests (including the tirade addressed by a young woman, a teacher of orphans, to the dimly sexist Audeh). That Ghobadi got the mix right is wonderful. That he did so outdoors in a snowbound border region, while working with a large cast of nonprofessionals, seems to me nothing short of amazing. Marooned in Iraq may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it’s definitely some sort of miracle.
Screening Schedule: If Marooned in Iraq sounds like a film that would appeal to you, then you also might enjoy such movies as Silences of the Palace by Moufida Tlatli, a Tunisian drama about women serving (and singing) in modern-day feudal conditions; or Bab El-Oued City by Merzak Allouache, a terrific picture about Islamic fundamentalists taking control of a working-class quarter in Algiers; or The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun by Djibril Diop Mambéty, a parable about a crippled girl in Dakar who holds her own as a newspaper vendor against the rough competition of boys; or Life on a String by Chen Kaige, an ostensibly folkloric tale of a dying Chinese musician and his apprentice, set in a wild, gorgeous, widescreen landscape.
What these films all have in common is that they were completed with grants from the Hubert Bals Fund, a financing program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. As the festival’s founding director, Bals helped introduce European audiences to any number of visually arresting films from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since his death in 1988, the fund that was established in his name has contributed to so many outstanding films that New York’s Museum of Modern Art can now present a whole series devoted to them.
From Distant Shores: 15 Years of the Hubert Bals Fund is on view at MoMA’s Gramercy Theatre, May 2-25. Silences of the Palace, Bab El-Oued City, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, Life on a String and twenty-one other features and documentaries are on the program, which will subsequently tour other cities throughout North America. If you’re in MoMA’s vicinity and want to be among the first to sample the program, you can get information by calling (212) 777-4900 or visiting www.moma.org.
And if you’re still hungry for movies with a non-American flavor, you can also try Films From Along the Silk Road, a retrospective of pictures from Central Asia, on view May 2-29 at the Walter Reade Theater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Presented with support from the Open Society Institute, the series covers the years 1945-2003 and offers forty features and shorts from a very wide swath of Genghis Khan territory: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I second the programmers, when they say these “hand-crafted wonders” come from countries that are “as culturally rich as they are cash poor.” For information, phone (212) 875-5600 or visit www.filmlinc.com.
Short Take: When Kirk Douglas broke into Hollywood during the final years of the studio system, actors used to feel they were doing all right if they made one good picture out of five. It Runs in the Family is Douglas’s eighty-sixth film. However many fine movies he has made in his time, the great and once-beautiful Douglas didn’t need this creepfest counting against his ratio.
The idea behind It Runs in the Family would seem plausible: Make another On Golden Pond, but with Douglases instead of Fondas. Kirk plays the patriarch of the Grombergs, a wealthy family of New York Jews. His former wife Diana plays his wife; his son Michael plays his son; and his grandson Cameron plays one of his grandsons. (The other grandson turns out to be Rory Culkin; go figure.) Kirk and Michael get to have their moment of history together on the screen, and the audience (on its way to a heart-warming) gets to wonder about which filial exasperations are real and which are made up for fun.
The credits roll; and immediately your ears warn you of suffering ahead. The lite-jazz theme music, featuring a trumpeter who must have apprenticed under Herb Alpert, sounds as if it had been bought at auction, settling the debts of a production company that folded in the 1970s. Then comes our introduction to the elder Gromberg, who is first seen in the midst of a medical exam to establish that Douglas (who has recovered from a stroke) is playing a man who has recovered from a stroke. “You’ve got a few good years left,” the doctor reassures him. Douglas waves his arms and asks, laboriously, “How do you know? Do you talk to The Man Upstairs?”
At this point, I must mention the name of Jesse Wigutow, who wrote that snatch of dialogue and many others like it. His screenplay for It Runs in the Family could not have been more primitive had it been dug out of clay tablets with a stick. The big laughs come from having Kirk Douglas splutter the words “schmuck” and “shtup” and talk about peeing. There’s a fart joke–not a funny one. There’s grandfatherly advice to Cameron–an appalling actor, playing an unappealing young man–on how to “close the deal” with women.
Dismay, rather than pathos, attends the juxtaposition of such moments with displays of photographs of Kirk Douglas in his youth. It’s as if the film were savoring the spectacle of one famous man’s frailty, rather than meditating on what age may do to us all. Past a certain point, you want to look away–but horror keeps your eyes fixed on the screen, even during the perfunctory and heartless scene in which Kirk Douglas acts out the discovery of Diana dead in bed.
It took two studios, MGM and Buena Vista, to release this picture and Michael Douglas himself to produce it. No father, no moviegoer, ought to feel safe anymore.