Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“Once upon a time, there was a President who had a very bad temper. One day the President’s family went to the airport. They had to fly far, far away. The President’s grandson didn’t want to go with his family so he stayed with his grandfather.”
In what opening text describes as an “unknown country” (and what is also a richly allegorical space), an old man (Misha Gomiashvili) tells this bedtime story to a little boy (Dachi Orvelashvili) as they both try to get to sleep in the cold surrounded by barn animals, as if themselves in a fable. Except the old man is the President, recently deposed in an overnight revolution – and the boy is his grandson, on the run with him in their own country as the bounty on the President’s head keeps rising. “It’s about us,” complains the boy, who would perhaps at this time prefer to be hearing a more escapist tale – and yet his grandfather’s story encapsulates the form and style of The President itself, in which director/co-writer Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, 1996; Kandahar, 2001) frames the realities and ramifications of tyranny as something like a children’s fairytale.
It may be called The President, and focus on that character’s desperate journey through his one-time realm, but really this is less about the man than about the consequences of his past rule – consequences with which he is constantly confronted as he tries to keep himself and more importantly his beloved grandson alive and safe. For, in the stolen guise of a street musician, the President encounters extreme poverty, child labour, an unpaid and brutally time- (and self-)serving soldiery, rape of women, torture of men, and indiscriminate murder of both (and of children too). Most of all he discovers a deep-seated, near universal hatred in others of practically everything that he was and did. His ‘city of light’, with chandeliers hanging over every street in the capital, and his sparkling luxurious palace, are all too easily snuffed out by the surrounding darkness that their dazzle had served to conceal.
In our first glimpse of the President in the film, he is signing execution orders, and insisting that a 16-year-old ‘terrorist’ be included among those killed despite pressure for clemency from the outside world – and so Makhmalbaf presents his protagonist as a vicious despot whose great fall is unlikely to elicit much sympathy. Yet as he is stripped of his military uniform, his finery, and his power, and forced by circumstance to experience life as one of his more wretched subjects, the President becomes more human in our eyes, a Lear-like old man full of fears and regrets, and eager, too late, to atone. His struggle to convince an increasingly terrified and traumatised child that their disguises, even their flight, are just part of a game or a dramatic play recalls Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), only with the significant difference that the Holocaust in which the President is being swallowed up is very much of his own making.
The President is an uncompromising, if not entirely unforgiving parable of the trappings – and traps – of power, as well as a fairytale that leaves the viewer to decide the likelihood that they will all live happily ever after. Well, I say ‘they’, but of course really it’s about us – about the corrupting political system of somewhere like Iran (where Makhmalbaf was born), or Georgia (where the film was shot), or just about anywhere with a ruling class and a military, including where you are right now.