‘Mardan’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Batin Ghobadi’s ambitious first feature is strong on atmosphere, short on believable drama

A childhood trauma haunts a policeman investigating a murder in the mountains of Kurdistan

The dark noir world of the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan looms heavily over this first feature written and directed by Batin Ghobadi, the younger brother of Bahman, whose films from The Time of Drunken Horses on have helped shape audiences’ perception of the Kurdish people. These are the reference points for Mardan, set in the hauntingly beautiful mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan and populated by tough macho men without women, who work fitfully on big construction projects meant to modernize the area. The dark, very offbeat police procedural weaves leisurely but ambitiously through the lives of multiple characters who, though interesting individuals, are so flawed they barely seem worth caring about. Still, the filmmaker has a pedigree that should attract interest, and with Iraqi Kurdistan constantly in the news, the film is likely to do plenty of festivals where it may get picked up locally.

There’s no sign of jihadists here but plenty of tragedy and Kurdish patriotism, and current events will help put the story in context for audiences. In the remote mountains, hollow-eyed police chief Mardan (Hossein Hassan) has the shell-shocked look of a man who has been through a war and will never smile again. What he’s seen is revealed in an opening shocker showing two small boys frolicking beside a river, until one is brutally raped by three grown men. One of the two boys is Mardan, but which one? That is the first uncertainty the film plays with.

Ghobadi is in no hurry to unpack the tale. Several characters make their bow at a homey brothel for migrant construction workers, also frequented by locals like the eccentric bearded youth Karzan, a married fisherman and cemetery worker. One night he’s driving home in his pick-up when he runs over a man. He panics, takes the corpse home and buries it with religious rites, setting off a chain of consequences.

The dead man’s name was Morad and he had just finished a six-month stint working on a construction site. When he disappeared he had $5,000 on him, so foul play is suspected. Soon Leila (Helan Abdulla) and her little boy Kurdu arrive from Turkey to look for the missing man. Mardan is immediately attracted to the woman, who appears like a ray of sunshine on a dreary day, and he makes the case his top priority. Not that he has much else to do besides arranging safe passage across the border for a hyena-like smuggler. This is presented so casually it doesn’t immediately feel like the hero is on the taking end of corruption. But his moral compass is clearly off center: when he needs some information, for instance, he calls on a local grave-robber.

The scripting is more complex than first meets the eye, and when Mardan is involved in an oddly parallel accident in his jeep it becomes apparent that the time frame is not linear at all, and the circumstances surrounding Morad’s death have to be reinterpreted. If only all this fancy footwork was building to something, but the characters are really too weak to take it to some great Ceylan-like moral space.

The cast is obscure apart from Helan Abdulla, better known as the singer-dancer Helly Luv last seen in an incendiary music video dedicated to Kurdish independence called "Risk It All." She injects a modern note of laid-back sexuality into Leila’s warm smile and long, uncoifed hair flying as free as the Kurdish flag. Like Morad, she is a patriot, asserting “I’m not Turkish, I’m a Kurd” as she grasps little Kurdu in her arms. The message is hard to miss.

Hassan makes a glum, one-note Mardan who seems too battered to ever rise above his childhood trauma or express his hankering for Leila. Granted, it’s a complicated situation until all the withheld information comes out in the closing scenes. But there are too many shadows hanging over his head, and he’s not an easy pivot for the drama.

A strong sense of place emanates from cinematographer Saba Mazioum’s carefully controlled colors, offering a fresh perspective on the majestic landscape which plays such a key role in the film. The same can be said for the modern ethnic score by Kayhan Kalhor, which has an original appeal.

Production company: Mijfilm Production

Cast: Hossein Hassan, Helan Abdulla, Esmail Zagros, Feyaz Duman

Director-Screenwriter: Batin Ghobadi

Producer: Bahman Ghobadi

Director of photography: Saba Mazioum

Production designer: Aidin Zarif

Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari

Music: Kayhan Kalhor

Sales: Versatile

No rating, 117 minutes