Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf opened last year’s Venice Orizzonti sidebar with The President (2014), which attains the open force of a parable while at the same time maintaining the excitement and tension of a political thriller. Georgian actor Misha Gomiashvili plays the President of the title, who reigns over an unnamed country. His grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) sits on his knee, dressed in a military uniform and asks for ice cream, which he’s not allowed for health reasons. To distract the boy, the President has him order by telephone that all the lights in the city be turned off. It’s a brilliantly absurd moment showing the childishness, flippancy and immorality of absolute power.
However, this particular dictator’s time is almost up as the country slides towards revolution and civil war. The dance lessons with Maria, the servants and the palatial privilege are all coming to an end, and the President is already packing his family off to safety while he stays to try and resolve the nationwide crisis. His beloved grandson stays as well, but events have reached a tipping point and as the revolutionaries and protesters seize the capital city, the President’s own once-loyal soldiers begin to desert him and the old man and child must flee. Wandering the country disguised as a poor refugee, the President has something to him reminiscent of a latter day King Lear.
The President is a vile character, using whatever he has in his power to secure his and his grandson’s safety. A loyal bodyguard who dies saving him has his body dumped at the side of the road; a gun will be pulled on anyone to secure their help. His one redeeming attribute his genuine love for his grandson, but often intense cruelty is underwritten by some devoted sentimental affection – Hitler and his dog, the Krays and their mother. For his part, the grandson is a genuinely good soul, an innocent abroad who is only partly fooled by the President’s Benigni-like attempt to turn their plight into some kind of charade. The grandson is a witness to the savagery around him, a cinematic descendant of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979).
As they pass through the country, the pair, disguised as a street musician and his dancing boy, meet up with various victims of the regime and see first hand not only the suffering that the regime has caused but the lawless brutality which the country is now undergoing. Indeed, Makhmalbaf’s concerns are not exclusively tied up with uncovered the depravities of the powerful, he is also intensely interested in the post-regime world: the hope that can give way so quickly to anarchy, murder and rape. Although filmed in Georgia, The President has an urgent relevance to all too many countries around the world, including those touched by the Arab Spring; a darkly comic and poignant portrait of an Ozymandian fall from grace and the subsequent damage that ensues.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty