History is littered with once omnipotent rulers brought low by rivals. Recently, with 24 hour news and mobile phone cameras, the hunt for deposed despots has turned into an Orwellian version of Where’s Wally? Just watch the frenzy that Saddam and Gaddafi’s attempted getaways provoked. The President expands on this delving into the problems faced by a country when a strongman loses his strength. Struggling to decide between parable and realism, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film still emerges as a thoughtful and provocative work on a timely topic.
The country in question is never mentioned, although the film itself was shot in Georgia. Makhmalbaf opens with his detached ruler demonstrating power by ordering the lights in his capital to be switched on and off. The reason? To impress his grandson. It’s no wonder the people are soon out on the streets and he’s forced into hiding, desperately seeking disguises to get himself and his grandson out the country to safety.
The President – he never gets a name – is played vividly by Misha Gomiashvilli. He has a stern face that occasionally hints at kindness when protecting his grandson, not that the starving population and tortured political dissidents would agree. Forced to confront his actions directly, he never succumbs to hand-wringing repentance and rarely loses his cool.
Following his progress through war torn streets, child slums and whorehouses, Makhmalbaf takes the opportunity to explore the bloody road to democracy so many countries stumble down. The mob mentality that sparks up raises questions around the weight of responsibility resting on every shoulder, while the dangers of mindless revenge are brought into the open.
It’s the way The President chooses to tackle these issues, or more precisely the two ways employed that cause problems. At times, Makhmalbaf plays with broad satire, his film a sweeping parable on the misuse of power. The opening light switching scene encapsulates this, but it’s brought out elsewhere as the President demands a haircut with a pistol shoved in the face of a trembling barber, steals a guitar and clothing from a child and tries to stop his grandson from calling him his majesty and saluting in public.
Elsewhere though, he opts for bleaker social realism. People are gunned down in the street and left in heaped piles for a collection that isn’t coming. Re-visiting a prostitute he once fell for, he’s shocked at the suffering she’s faced. Later, the wounds of tortured prisoners start to capture attention. It’s a world all too familiar to many people, but not one that sits well alongside the satire.
Makhmalbaf would have been better off choosing one path. He’s created a visually arresting but confused film addressing important questions. A little more consistency in tone and it could have been something special.