The coming-of-age of Iranian Cinema and the heightened exposure of such works is perhaps the most eye-opening addition to American art house theaters in the past two decades. Iran is not the picture American media paints of it. What it is, however, is a developing, hopeful nation of good, hardworking people not unlike our idyllic image of our own. A Time for Drunken Horses, the debut feature of Bahman Ghobadi won the Camera d’Or at Cannes (for best first feature) for giving us an honest a glimpse of a Kurdish family trying their hardest to make ends meet and find the money for an operation that the life of one of the children, Madi, depends on.
To earn that money, the eldest boy, Ayoub, works with smugglers, selling horses and car tires on the other side of the Iraqi border and buying cheap goods in Iraq that, presumably, sell for more in Iran. The trek is not terribly long, but it is dangerous; several characters have lost loved ones to landmines littered on their path, it is the harshest part of winter and the cold is almost too much for the mules and smugglers, and of course the penalty for smuggling is not light. Still, the family knows that they must do it for Madi. There are only a couple developments, but the plot unfolds at a glacial pace, making 78 minutes feel like two hours plus. Told in many longshots, it can also be hard to follow what is going on specifically, as the winter clothing makes characters hard to identify and little exposition is provided, giving us the impression that these characters have been smuggling for a long time. We are not exactly sure how the rendezvous with the Iraqi children will work, nor what is going on at the border, but we can follow along generally. This is frustrating, but given the universality of the story, a family going to whatever is necessary for each other, it is not as harsh a blow as it could be, although it certainly lessens the emotional stakes.
On the flip side, those longshots are positively gorgeous. Iran in the snow is far prettier than you would expect, whether it is shot through a handheld camera or a mounted one. The acting, too, is superb, giving a level of dignity that is missing from the script. It’s a shame that such a well-made film is so unadventurous, as if telling the story through a child’s eye is an excuse to avoid depth. A Time for Drunken Horses never has terribly much to say, even though it speaks so eloquently. Our protagonist, despite his youth, is intelligent and mature, but Ghobadi’s picture happily settles for being a bit short of that. It is only when the political forces at work are addressed that Ghobadi takes a stand, this time a bit too bluntly. A Time For Drunken Horses is a promising debut, but the storytelling is a bit too lackadaisical for the film to really resonate, politically or humanely.