Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi's auspicious debut feature, A Time For Drunken Horses, has the distinction of being the first Iranian film ever shot in his native Kurdish, a startling fact considering he represents a stateless ethnic group with upwards of 20 million people. For this reason alone, he's a vital talent, but also one burdened with the responsibility of depicting an entire culture, since so few images of Kurdish life ever make it to the screen. Taking an obvious cue from Emir Kusturica, whose rambunctious 1995 epic Underground found absurdist humor and revelry amid the suffering in the former Yugoslavia, Ghobadi's ambitious Marooned In Iraq labors to present the fullest possible view of the Kurdish experience. Though it opens in a desperate period in their history, just after Gulf War I prompted Saddam Hussein to assault Iraqi Kurdistan with bombs and chemical attacks, the film is a surprisingly exuberant slice-of-life, suffusing tragedy with generous bits of broad comedy and musical performance. A road movie that snakes across the Iran-Iraq border, against the flow of refugees fleeing Saddam, Marooned In Iraq ventures further into the heart of darkness as it goes along, but not before making pit-stops in camps and villages where the mood is lightened by song and camaraderie. Doing their best Three Stooges routine, once-famous musician Shahab Ebrahimi and his two sons, Faegh Mohamadi and Allah-Morad Rashtian, shamble on a dangerous journey into Iraq to rescue Ebrahimi's ex-wife, a singer who left him for his best friend 23 years earlier. In spite of his sons' reluctance to join him–Rashtian, for his part, doesn't want to leave his seven wives and 13 daughters unless he can find another wife to give him a son–the three pile onto Mohamadi's motorcycle and sidecar and head for the border. Along the way, they're hijacked by armed bandits on two separate occasions, one of which forces them to perform at a local wedding and the other of which costs them the motorcycle and all their belongings. By attempting to show a wide spectrum of Kurdish life, Ghobadi sacrifices some narrative urgency for the sake of local color, particularly in the first half, which is marred by choppy pacing and hammy comic performances. But as his roundabout odyssey approaches its destination, under the chilling shrieks of Iraqi aircraft overhead, Marooned In Iraq ends with horrific revelations that are made all the more powerful by the lightness that precedes them. Simultaneously sad and hopeful, Ghobadi suggests the resiliency of a culture in which war is part of the fabric of everyday life.
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