Marooned In Iraq

July, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Bahman Ghobadi

Starring:Shahab Ebrahimi, Faegh Mohamadi, and Rojan Hosseini

The Middle East has produced some wonderful films in the last few years, and among the very best is A Time For Drunken Horses, about smugglers coaxing their hay-burning transport over the gloomy and dangerous mountains of the Iran/Iraq border. Its director, Bahman Ghobadi, revisits that turf again in this effort, but with far less successful results.

Marooned is set in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War and the focus is once more on the beleaguered Kurds who then as now inhabit portions of northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. Mirza, an aging but popular Kurdish musician living in Iran, becomes concerned about the health and safety of his estranged wife, who's living somewhere along the border with Iraq in one of the region's many refugee camps. Enlisting the help of his two grown sons, (who also perform with their father) Mirza sets out on an odyssey of unknown duration. Along the route of his search, Ghobadi shows how grim life has become for the Kurds, but the director's purpose goes much deeper; he seeks to laud these resilient, tenacious people who stubbornly cling to their communal life and culture with lusty exuberance, despite the violence with which they are treated. 

In contrast to his previous film, Ghobadi tries to lighten the grim tone of his material by presenting his wandering trio as a bickering family that can barely stand one another. One of Mirza's sons has 7 wives and 11 daughters; the other is a bachelor in his late 30's whose inability to find a wife causes his father no small embarrassment. Neither son wants to disrupt his own life to aid their father in finding a wife who is mother to neither of them, setting the scene for the kind of domestic tensions normally found in television sitcoms. The director employs extensive diatribes which, since they're delivered in Farsi, require simplistic subtitles to allow an American audience to follow the plot. Given the speech patterns and guttural tonality of the language, an English speaking viewer soon gets the impression that Mirza is a Kurdish version of Archie Bunker, and far too many of the film's road scenes suggest that the director is trying for low humor rather than a serious commentary on the deplorable conditions Ghobadi presents with such relentless scrutiny. When Mirza, now separated from his sons, finally finishes his quest, the somber climax emerges in stark contrast to what has preceded it. 

Because the audience so quickly tires of the bickering Mirza and his sons, the film's relatively short length (97 minutes) can't disguise the fact that Ghobadi simply doesn't have enough story to tell; the result is a labored exercise which would have been twice as effective at half the length. Despite his obvious knack for brilliant location shots and the ability to capture much of the Kurdish culture in his deliberately matter-of-fact presentation of the living conditions of this cruelly dislocated people, Ghobadi needs to find a more sustained vehicle than the one presented here. The result? "A" for effort, "D-" for execution.

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