A Time for Drunken Horses

A Time for Drunken Horses ★★★★

A Time for Drunken Horses is the evocatively titled debut of Iranian Bahman Ghobadi. It's a remarkable film, shot in his native village near the border with Iraq. This is an incredibly harsh environment of mountain ranges where even the mules are fed alcohol to help them deal with the bitter cold. The village is marginal geographically and economically and seems to survive on illegal trading with Iraq, but the smuggler routes are treacherous because of the deep snow, the constant threat of ambush, and the presence of live mines that have claimed the lives of many villagers.

The film tells the story of a family of five children over the course of a few months. Their mother died giving birth to their youngest, their father works as a smuggler and the children work at a bazaar doing whatever jobs they can find to try to help make ends meet. The first part of the film shows them returning to their village from their work to learn that their father has been killed by a mine. The children's uncle helps where he can but the children are basically left to survive on their wits. The eldest son who must be barely a teen becomes the father, joining the eldest sister as parents to the younger children. In accepting these roles they are relinquishing any hope of an education for themselves, but they still do their best to enable the next eldest daughter to study hard by sourcing exercise books from the black market for her. But their main focus is on their "little" brother, Madi, who is severely disabled, and we soon learn that his condition is terminal. The doctor explains that an operation will help extend his life by another eight months and the remainder of the film follows them as they try to earn the money to buy him this fragile lifeline before it is too late. 

These poor kids face hardships from every direction. Their efforts to survive and make the best of their situation are shown without sentiment: this is just the life they've been dealt. But what their deprivation does is make them live for each other. The two eldest will commit the greatest personal sacrifices to help their young family, and the love they all show for Madi is absolute. There is little hope, but these bonds of love are enough for them to soldier on, finding a way to move past every misfortune they encounter. 

Ghobadi uses local, amateur actors, and they bring a strong and deeply affecting authenticity to the film. The physical landscapes are bleak and breathtaking, but it's the human landscapes - the humanity of these children - that lifts the film from its unremitting misery into something quite beautiful.

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