The President

  • The President

If you’re free tomorrow at 2 PM, I recommend going to River East for the encore screening of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film is this year’s winner of the Gold Hugo for best narrative feature—and, for what it’s worth, I too consider it the most impressive thing I saw at the fest this year. President finds the Iranian director working in the righteous, formally adventurous mode of his groundbreaking 80s features The Peddler and Marriage of the Blessed, though it differs from those earlier films in a few crucial ways. For one thing, its social critique is not limited to Iranian society. The film takes place in an unknown country and at no particular time, as Makhmalbaf (who’s lived in exile from Iran for roughly a decade) wants us to consider the themes of tyranny and revolution as universal and timeless. Tonally this is far gentler than Makhmalbaf’s earlier provocations. As in his recent quasi-documentary The Gardener, the director seeks to overcome his anger at injustice by channeling it into contemplative poetry. It is the work of an enlightened artist.

Not long after President begins the title character—who’s no president, but in fact a ruthless military dictator—is deposed by a popular uprising. His grown children assassinated and his military in disarray, the old man flees the capital with his five-year-old grandson to head for the nearest border. To avoid detection, the two disguise themselves as peasants and take a circuitous route through the nation’s barren steppes. And so the powerful become the powerless, though Makhmalbaf does not belabor this dramatic irony. Adopting the grandson’s perspective, the director defamiliarizes both power and powerlessness, at times encouraging us to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The film’s absurdist streak grows wider as the characters get further away from “civilization” (i.e., their insulation from the suffering of others) and into the impoverished backwaters of their country, where there’s little that anyone would ever want to rule over.

The characters’ progression is mirrored by the evolution of the film’s imagery. The opening passages of President are dominated by wide shots, which make spectacles of the antihero’s palace and the capital city that he treats like an amusement park. As the dictator becomes increasingly desperate, Makhmalbaf’s visual language employs increasing use of close-ups, making viewers uneasily share in the character’s isolation. Does this devil feel as uncomfortable staring at himself as we do staring at him? Or is he as ignorant as his grandson about the impact he’s made on his country? The answer isn’t as simple as you might think, the film suggests, nor is it as easy to get rid of injustice as it is to get rid of a dictator.