The President tells two familiar tales. On the one hand, it assumes the Hollywood gusto of a war epic: an aging, resourceful man and his doting grandson try to survive the revolution. On the other hand, The President has the attention span of a scatterbrained road-trip movie that picks up narrative threads as carelessly as it drops them. After all, the hero here cannot generate genuine sympathy: a brutal, arrogant dictator (Misha Gomiashvili) in an unnamed country is introduced as he signs off death sentences. Yet there’s nothing funnier or more humane as “His Majesty,” who has enjoyed wealth and power all his life, suddenly descends onto the meager earth and is forced to dress his grandson, “His Royal Highness,” (Dachi Orvelashvili) as a girl and together to live as paupers in order to survive.
Already, writer/director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and co-writer Marziyeh Meshkiny exhibit their cinematic ambition: a parable that refers to the past and the present alike, that includes the socio-political realities across the globe, that tonally wavers between satire and melodrama. Whether Makhmalbaf has succeeded or not varies among individuals with particular tastes and preferences, but if Mr. Makhmalbaf relishes tensions in real life as much as those in his fictional world, he will find those diverging reviews not only entertaining but also reassuring. (PS: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Peier Shen
Mr. Makhmalbaf collaborated with his partner, who is also a well-established Iranian filmmaker, Marzieh Meshkini. Together, they wrote The President that revolves around a dictator, unaware of the political unrest of his own state, who falls from power because of the coup d’état by the revolutionists. In the beginning, “His Majesty” (Misha Gomiashvili) and “His Royal Highness” (Dachi Orvelashvili) play a whimsical game, turning on and off the city lights by commanding an unseen operator. The omnipotent influence of the dictator is thereby manifested through Mr. Makhmalbaf’s clever reinterpretation of Genesis – “And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” Of course, there’s no better metaphor for a sudden loss of that divine power when the dictator sits helpless in the dark. While his wife and his spoiled daughters are wise enough to leave the country, the dictator obstinately stays, as does his grandson who likes to be with his toys.
What soon follows is an imitation of what the audience has grown to admire and love so dearly – the game in the Italian masterpiece, La Vita è Bella. In order to shield his son from horrors of the holocaust, Guido Orefice invents a complicated game that helps his boy to survive the concentration camp without losing his innocence. Similarly, there is a game in The President. Pursued by his own people, who are now bloodthirsty and vengeful, His Majesty goes undercover with His Royal Highness. Their exile is mainly composed of absurd masquerades: the dictator becomes a long-haired hippie and his grandson, a gypsy girl that ironically refuses to address the dictator as “Grandpa,” a title “His Majesty” himself is not used to.
The film itself becomes thereby curiously self-referential: His Majesty and His Royal Highness attempt acting while they are in fact characters embodied by two Georgian actors. Throughout their journey of pretense, His Majesty and his grandson will encounter many who suffer under the dictator’s regiment, including the killer of the dictator’s son, and the audience is expected to hear each story of anguish, shed some tears, and move on. At times, the film also heavily depends upon dialogues: the scene where all the ex-political prisoners debate over what to do about the dictator serves as the moral theme that Mr. Makhmalbaf makes the point to keep referring back to.
Interestingly, the ubiquitous radio ironically announces the trail of the characters and thus creates a sense of narrative progress for the audience. Later on, there’s a moment when His Majesty, in his attempt to assuage his tired grandson, tells the boy that it is the final act and soon their play will be over. One cannot help smiling upon Mr. Makhmalbaf’s playful wink to the emotionally exhausted spectators who have sat through almost two hours at this point.
In many ways, His Majesty’s supposed kindness to the boy resembles that of Mr. Makhmalbaf’s towards us. The dictator repeatedly instructs the boy not to look and not to hear, yet the child sees and hears anyway just like the audience, reassured by the comedic tone, only find themselves constantly confronted with violent images. The quintessentially satirical moment resides with the scene where the dictator instructs the boy to face the window and cover his ears. Though His Majesty thinks that the boy is protected from what can be assumed to be sex, His Royal Highness in turn watches a family being slaughtered by rebellious soldiers.
At the end of the day, Mr. Makhmalbaf is not a romantic. The boy has to lose his innocence just like the audience has to witness and feel the pain of the helpless poor, the raped bride, the betrayed husband, the bereaved mother, and many more. There is a sense of moral in seeing. Perhaps that’s why the movie is visually agitated, composed of many shots that resemble the first-person shooter perspective in video games. The jarring images, unapologetically digital, shout at the audience to see all.
With no clear intention to point out any political realities, not even that of Iran, Mr. Makhmalbaf and Ms. Meshkini, intentionally vague about their references, simply want their viewers not to cover their eyes or ears but to be brave and stand as witnesses to the age-old tale of political violence and its consequences. But the question about whether we as witnesses have the courage to act and to change these realities is left deafeningly silent.
Top Photo: Misha Gomiashvili as “The President” flees from the capital after the coup.
Middle Photo: The President and his grandson play the game to switch on and off the city’s lights.
Bottom Photo: The President on the run with his grandson “His Royal Highness” (Dachi Orvelashvili)
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Makhmalbaf Film House & BAC Films http://www.bacfilms.com/international/film/59
Q: Does The President (2014) pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
There are many strong supporting female characters with vivid and distinct voices. Even though they never get a chance to engage in conversation with each other, their sufferings resonate and demonstrate the female experience in a painfully patriarchal world.