By Gary Dowell / The Dallas Morning News
Based on the stories and experiences of writer/director Bahman Ghobadi while growing up in northern Iran, A Time for Drunken Horses looks unflinchingly at poverty and strife and the people who endure it on a daily basis. Mr. Ghobadi relates his tale matter-of-factly, with an uncluttered cinematic naturalness that has become the hallmark of recent Iranian films. And while the movie functions as an overt downer, it also extends a glimmer of hope.
A young girl named Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) serves as the occasional narrator. Her brother, Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), has taken the orphaned family's helm after the death of their father and is responsible for Ameneh, sister Rojine (Rojine Younessi) and crippled, deformed brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini) â€“ a handicapped young man trapped in the body of a small child. Living off pills and shots, Madi must be carried by his younger siblings through the snow as they struggle to make enough money to survive.
Complications arise when it is learned that Madi must have an operation within a month, or he will die; the sad irony is that the operation will not save Madi's life, only prolong it for seven or eight months.
There are few jobs, and the children perform whatever work they can scare up. Villagers frequently stake â€“ and lose â€“ their lives by working as smugglers, carrying tires and other materials on the mule trains that traverse the mountains between Iran and Iraq. The mules are given liquor to help fight the cold (hence the somewhat inaccurate title); the children, packing equally heavy loads, are not so lucky. Ayoub learns the hard way that you get paid before you start. (Once you set out, you'll encounter gunfire, landmines and ambushes, and your payment may not be waiting for you should you make it to the end of the line.)
As grim as it is, the tight bonds between the children undercut the bleakness. Like many of the movies made in Iran â€“ as well as Zhang Yimou's recent Not One Less â€“ effective use is made of nonactors in the cast. The performances of the children are extraordinary and imbue the movie with a feeling of reality captured perfectly by the camera.
A Time for Drunken Horses takes a sobering look at a harsh environment where food, medical care and work are often scarce. It's bitter medicine, a tale so painfully close to the truth and so relentlessly bleak that it may be too bitter for some moviegoers to swallow.