'The President': Venice Review

La Biennale
Mohsen Makhmalbaf's allegorical fable starts well but veers into conventional civil war drama

A coup d'etat puts a dictator and his little grandson on the run for their lives

Expat Iranian director Mohsen Makmalbaf proposes an original if not wholly successful take on the Arab Spring political upheaval in The President, an allegory set “in an unnamed country” about an all-powerful tyrant who is forced to go on the run with his 5-year-old grandson after he's deposed by a coup d’etat. Shot in Georgia with an all-Georgian cast, it ignores the religious issues at stake in the Arab turmoil to concentrate on a greedy ruling family that has reduced its subjects to abject poverty, and the violence of civil war that follows when they are ousted from power. All this is portrayed in such elementary terms it could be the libretto of a 19th century operetta, or maybe a children’s film, were it not so disturbing.  Like the rest of this wide-ranging director's work, it is clearly aimed at international audiences, but it’s hard to see the BAC release traveling far outside the festival circuit after opening Venice’s Horizons sidebar.

One night His Majesty (played by white-bearded Misha Gomiashvili with pompous dignity) is surveying the city spread out below his palace, with his grandson (Dachi Ovelashvili) on his knee. To show him how much fun it is to wield absolute power, he picks up a gold-plated phone and curtly orders all the twinkling lights to be turned off. A few seconds later the city is plunged in darkness. He allows the delighted little boy to order them switched back on, and on they come.  But the next time they try this gambit, the lights fail to come on. Gunshots are heard, announcing the revolution.

The next scene is similarly balanced on a razor edge of farce. After making a dignified visit to the gilded palace lavatories, the ruling family piles into a black stretch limo and takes off for the airport and exile. The bickering between two over-privileged sisters opens a window on the rampant corruption that has been going on. Not wanting to leave his toys and little dancing partner Maria behind, grandson throws a temper tantrum and refuses to board the plane with the others; for some reason they indulge him and leave him behind with grandpa until things either blow over or get worse. The fact that the tyke’s parents are absent makes this marginally easier to swallow, and it must be said that little Ovelashvili, a gravely accomplished child actor, plays spoiled like a pro.

On their way back to the palace the gravity of the situation finally hits home. Rioters throng the streets and the police fire wildly on the crowd without knowing which side they’re on anymore. After the radio announces a bounty on the tyrant’s head, the limo desperately seeks an escape route, generating a bit of mild car chase excitement as the mobs assault it.  In the end, it runs out of gas in the countryside.

The rest of the film turns increasingly somber and less interesting as Grandpa and his heir negotiate hostile terrain disguised as ragamuffin traveling musicians. The point is that the cruel dictator, who was used to starving the populace and burning his enemies alive, is now forced to come to terms with the human suffering he’s caused and experience his bedraggled country from the victims’ p.o.v.  From this point on, all humor is dropped and the film becomes a simple catalog of horrors that most audiences see on the TV news every night — greedy militia robbing refugees and raping women, corpses littering the streets, the chaos of civil war.

The people are depicted as a bloodthirsty rabble hell-bent on vengeance against the deposed dictator. Many scenes seem designed to illustrate platitudes, at the expense of the narrative, like violence begets more violence, hungry people are wicked, and democracy should not be a vendetta against the past. As His ex-Majesty becomes aware of what he's done to the country, he looks a bit abashed, but the big dramatic scene of catharsis is missing.

In the main role, veteran Gomiashvili looks very much the part in a beribboned brown military uniform that recalls Fidel Castro, but becomes a wee bit monotonous as he shepherds the child through a thousand dangers which they are obviously going to survive. Likewise, his curt explanations to the boy’s innocent questions about death, torture and terrorism begin to wear. One longs for more signs of wit or at least personality on the order of Robert Benigni’s heroic joking in the concentration camp of Life is Beautiful, where he persuades his little son they are just playing a game.  

Mention needs to be made of supporting actress Ia Sukhitashvili as an exhausted prostitute with her period who plays a high-pitched dramatic scene with Gomiashvili while washing herself on the toilet (another argument that this is not a kidpic.).

The main visuals from cinematographer Konstantin Mindia Esadze emphasize the bleak, colorless landscape as an ugly moral wasteland, an apt setting for His Majesty’s descent into hell. The Makhmalbaf family members lend a hand on the producing (son Maysam), editing (daughter Hana) and scripting (wife Marziyeh Meshkiny) fronts.

Production companies: 20 Steps Production, Makhmalbaf Film House, President Fame Ltd. in association with BAC Film Production, Bruemmer and Herzog Filmproduktion

Cast: Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili, Ia Sukhitashvili, Guja Burduli, Zura Begallishvili, Lasha Ramishvili, Soso Khvedelidze, Dato Beshitaishvili
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Screenwriters: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marziyeh Meshkiny
Producers: Maysam Makhmalbaf, Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Vladimer Katcharava
Director of photography: Konstantin Mindia Esadze
Production designer: Mamuka Esadze
Costumes: Ketevan Kalandadze
Editors: Hana Makhmalbaf, Marziyeh Meshkiny
Music: Guja Burduli, Tajdar Junaid
Sales Agent:  BAC Films Intl.
No rating, 118 minutes.