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.