- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

One out of fours stars

TITLE: "A Time for Drunken Horses"

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, involving orphaned children in an impoverished setting)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi

RUNNING TIME: 77 minutes

The Iranian import "A Time for Drunken Horses," booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry, combines some fascinating scenic novelty and authenticity with a scenario that remains too sketchy and tentative to sort out the major characters or keep a plot unfolding effectively for a modest stretch of running time, 77 minutes.

The setting is Kurdistan, where filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi recruited nonprofessionals, mostly the resident villagers, to portray groups of Iranian and Iraqi Kurds who regularly traffic with each other across a border that teems with off-screen peril.

Although Mr. Ghobadi, no doubt operating on a meager budget, avoids anything resembling a major action sequence, there are sounds of gunfire in the distance as caravans of mule teams, hefting huge truck tires most conspicuously, make their way along rugged and snowy terrain.

The title alludes to a method of animal abuse or incentive upon which smugglers rely: dosing the feed of pack animals with alcohol to numb their resistance to the burdens and cold weather.

Mr. Ghobadi seems to have the makings of a stirring naturalistic fable about struggle and fraternal heartache.

A motherless batch of five siblings is left fatherless by a smuggling expedition that costs lives. The oldest brother, Ayoub, already active in running errands for merchants in a nearby town, is obliged to plead for work with the smugglers who employed his late father. He gets a tryout as a boyish pack mule.

A crippled brother, Madi, a victim of severe dwarfism and vulnerable to an unspecified incurable illness, needs an emergency operation that could prove futile. The most expedient means of finance is an arranged marriage for the eldest daughter of the brood, Rojine, into an Iraqi smuggling clan that appears willing to finance the deal.

Needless to say, the fondest hopes of the self-sacrificing orphans prove vain. The prospective in-laws keep Rojine and leave her family with a mule in exchange for the promised operation.

The diminutive Madi, bundled in a sack on a pack mule during the ghastly rendezvous trip, looks even more aggrieved than the sorely abused beasts of burden when parked near a thorn bush, where he shivers in the cold.

One's identification with the struggling, exploitable Ayoub would be more secure if a priority of sibling ties could be established.

For example, he needs to be closer to Rojine than the filmmaker indicates to give her sacrifice the needed pathos.

She's barely in the picture until forced into a marriage of convenience. There are more scenes between Ayoub and a kid sister named Amaneh, who's keen on school and narrates the story, although she is rarely within hailing distance of the pivotal episodes.

Mr. Ghobadi might compensate for slender resources by constructing sturdier building blocks of family relationships and overwhelming obstacles to family loyalty. That challenge wasn't beyond a Vittorio De Sica or Satyajit Ray in earlier decades and within underfinanced, censored movie cultures.

The exotic and forbidding aspects of the location help compensate for the dramatic weaknesses. So does a color stock that seems marvelously sensitive to textures and fabrics, skin and weather.

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