In which film savant Iggy Cortez recommends a melodrama with honesty.

Like many Iranian movies, Bahman Ghobadi’s beautiful and passionate A Time for Drunken Horses focuses its poignant narrative on children, a device some critics consider excessively manipulative, but which Ghobadi handles with honesty and an admirable restraint. The film follows a family of orphaned Kurdish siblings living in brutal conditions in the border between Iran and Iraq. Ayoub, the film’s young hero, and his sisters make back-breaking sacrifices to support each other and their disabled older brother, Madi.

Their already difficult lives take a turn for the worst when a doctor reveals that Madi is critically ill and needs an operation to survive. His siblings become determined to raise the money in whatever way they can – Ameneh, an elder sister, agrees to marry an Iraqi Kurd if they agree to pay for Madi’s operation (the groom’s family eventually refuses, offering them a donkey they can sell instead). But Ayoub’s dangerous struggles form the heart of the film, as he attempts to raise money transporting contraband goods with a group of ineffective smugglers. The film’s enigmatic title is also the film’s most absurd and potent image, referring to the smugglers’ practice of spiking their mules’ water with vodka, so they can endure journeys on freezing mine-infested fields and mountains.

A Time for Drunken Horses is aligned with the tradition of Italian neo-realist cinema, where simplicity is used to analyze the complexities of survival, and the narrative’s emotional manipulation is too deliberate to be deceptive. The sequences involving smuggling are particularly breath-taking, with their harrowing vistas and perfectly controlled tension. Ghobadi also elicits outstanding performances from his cast of non-professional actors due in part to his remarkable talent for shooting faces. The close-ups of Ayoub’s face reveal both his terrifying circumstances and a courageous stoicism too focused for self-commiseration or pleas for our sympathy, while the shots of Madi’s beautiful face anchor the movie, embodying the openness, innocence and almost unbearable sadness that resonate throughout the film.