Iran at the Chicago International Film Festival

The Best Picture Award winner at the 50th Annual Chicago International Film Festival went to the stunning Iranian film The President. Set in an unnamed Middle East country (actually filmed in Georgia), the film follows the flight of a deposed dictator and his grandson out of the country. It starts with an amusing scene of the two of them overlooking the night skies of the city, toying with the power of ordering all the lights out. When the dictator hands the phone over to the 10 year-old, imitating the President, he orders all the lights out, and we see the city go totally dark. After leaving everyone without electricity for a while, he orders the electricity back on, but instead, gunshots start to erupt: It’s obvious the people have had enough and the revolution has started. Sensing trouble, the president drives his family to the airport for a quick escape, but he remains with his grandson, assuming this will be over shortly. Much to his surprise, everyone has joined the revolution, and he hopelessly dodges every possible obstacle to escape across the border. On his escape route he is confronted by the people who were subjugated, tortured and abused during his long reign of power.

But the director adds a complicating element. The revolutionaries quickly become as dreadful as the dictator in their rampage throughout the land, raping, killing and abusing as badly as the dictator they overthrew. Iranian master Mohsen Makmalbaf (Kandahar, Gabbeh), has crafted a troubling parable that will keep its viewers guessing what exact country he’s telling about – it surely could be Libya, Egypt, Iraq or several others.

The President takes on the style of a road movie, at times both comical and frightening. The president becomes a symbol of the destructive power that consumes leaders who lose their connection to the masses. The grandson becomes the symbol of innocence, too young to understand how violence and hate develop into a destructive force. The film offers a plea for humanity and common sense, urging ways to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence consuming many countries in the Middle East today. It is riveting and visually stunning, often understated and poignant. There are many beautiful visual ironies, a limo encircled by a gag of sheep, the pompous dictator with his young grandson both bedecked in medals and officialdom, gradually peeling away their façade in a long and futile attempt to escape, along the way discovering the brutal realities of the land he once ruled.

Iranian cinema holds a magical place in the film world – at once simple and lyrical, always searching for the essence of humanity in all its beauty and wonder. Most often free of violence and graphic sex, with themes focusing on poetry, people and love, it is logical that they would produce one of the finest examples of the Romeo and Juliet theme. A Few Cubic Meters of Love is just such a story – doomed forbidden love. A young Iranian laborer, Sabar, meets and falls in love with Marona, the daughter of an “illegal” Afghan worker, who live in the immigrant shacks on the land of a small metal factory on the outskirts of Tehran. The Iranian shop owner houses and hires the desperate illegal workers, benefitting from the low pay he offers them. Frightening random police raids force the workers to flee and hide in a large drain pipe under a road. But amid this squalor and poverty a flower grows. Sabar and Marona, a highly charismatic young couple, find relief in escaping to a cargo container, a few cubic meters in size, where they exude the joy of their newfound love for each other. Although they never once kiss each other, or even touch each other, the beauty of their love is unquestionable. She skips all the way to the secret rendezvous place carrying flowers for her lover. He can’t remove the permanent glow on his face when she’s in view. But despite his attempts to get her to share his commitment in words, her cultural restrictions make her unable to verbally state she loves him.

There are many subtle references in the film to differences in culture, language and class. Although he is a lowly worker, he is not in the even worse position of illegal lowly worker. And of course the extremely conservative father would forbid any such relation between the lovers. The film feels like a documentary, with the honesty and reality of the story. This is a beautiful film with probably the most unforgettable ending in the history of cinema. Check out any Makmalbaf film if you can; you won’t be disappointed.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.