Bahman Ghobadi works with the elements of neorealism in A Time for Drunken Horses, but he creates something perhaps more akin to a thriller with an engrossing race against time at the heart of the story. The film stars nonprofessional actors and the heartbreak of human existence is at the film’s core, but A Time for Drunken Horses rarely meanders, and Ghobadi uses the expressive faces of his unknown cast to communicate the urgency of the situation.
The film, which shared the Caméra d’Or award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of an Iranian Kurdish family of brothers and sisters. Their parents have been stripped away from them, and 12-year-old Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) engages in the only profession available — smuggling goods across the snowy hills on the Iraq-Iran border.
The quest for survival is harrowing enough, but Ayoub is also driven by the condition of his 15-year-old brother Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-dini), a perpetually ill boy with a developmental disorder. His medication is costly and he will die soon without an even more expensive operation.
Smuggling proves insufficient to raise enough money for the procedure and an attempt to secure surgery for Madi by marrying off one of the girls (Rojin Younessi) also proves unsuccessful, leading Ayoub to attempt a last-ditch effort to sell a mule in Iraq for the money.
Ghobadi’s camera captures the frigid, harsh beauty of the snowy landscapes that Ayoub must traverse — a journey so fraught that the mules are fed liquor beforehand to keep them warm enough to press through. The film’s climactic moments feature the downside of such a practice, and the chaos that results is captured in an expertly choreographed sequence.
A Time for Drunken Horses finds immediacy in the faces of Madi and Ayoub, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the plight of this family barely eking out an existence. Ghobadi’s debut feature shows perceptive direction of actors and the ability to discover small glints of beauty in the midst of mundane and difficult surroundings.
The Kino Lorber DVD release of the film marks the first time it’s been released on the format in this country, and it’s an excellent presentation, retaining a film-like image that features bold natural colors. The DVD does not include any bonus material.