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The President | 2014 Venice Film Festival Review

The Emperor’s New Clothes: Makhmalbaf’s Conspicuous Allegory

Early on in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s grimly steadfast The President, you may start by racking your brain for specific references to the ‘unnamed country’ that ends up undergoing a coup, wondering who that omniscient narrator was guiding us through a spectacularly lit city square. We are told that yet another capital punishment is about to transpire under the tyranny of a dictator, a man referred to only by his euphemistic occupation. Signing off on these death sentences, the grizzled leader plays a silly game with his young grandson to show off his spectacular authority by turning the lights on and off in the entire city, and then the lights literally go out on his regime. But as the film progresses, you’ll realize it doesn’t really matter where this is happening as this is an allegory, an unspecified country standing in for many. Instead, what transpires plays like an obvious sermon about authoritarianism and the bitter fallacy of revenge.

The President, or His Majesty (Misha Gomiashvili), as he prefers everyone to address him, seems to be the last one to realize that the severe political unrest underway in his country is about to lead to his removal from power. After his son-in-law is murdered, his wife (Eka Kakhiani) and two bickering daughters (Nuki Koshkelishvili and Elene Bezarashvili) are carted out of the country, but his young grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) refuses to stray from grandpa’s side. Leaving the airport, their limousine is detained by the violent protestors that have blocked the streets, and their attempt to return to the palace is perpetually thwarted. Finally, the President’s men are overthrown, and the ruler must flee in disguise through the countryside while a ransom on his head increases drastically.

Makhmalbaf, a famed Iranian director, gets us to lean in closely. We expect to be let in on the joke he’s playing, assured that we can’t possibly be made to feel empathetic for this dictator or his progeny. Yet that never happens, and instead we spend nearly two whole hours in cramped quarters on a survival quest with a man that’s responsible for enacting vicious atrocities or turning a blind eye to them.

While it can’t really be claimed that Makhmalbaf is said to make us entirely empathetic, it’s a humanizing portrayal of a man that shows the disassociation with reality that power or fame brings. At the end of the day, he’s just a man. One might even recall Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis on Eichmann and the banality of evil. Yet something feels lacking or incomplete about The President, as if Makhmalbaf and his wife and co-writer Marziyeh Meshkiny are holding back. Surely, a final showdown on the distant shores, where the fate of the fallen dictator lies in the hands of an angry mob, the various perspectives about what to do with him and what it means seems entirely too on point, as if it were an overwritten stage play meant to leave us with a comfy moral of the story.

Visual flourishes seem strangely muted, or few and far between. During its set-up, there promises to be a tongue-in-cheek vapor that quickly dissipates, such as when a gaggle of footmen quietly ring around the young boy to scoot him into a limo, or the continuously referenced dance scene where the grandson engages with his school crush, Maria. But mostly the film is a dourly paced struggle for survival, where radio announcements almost cartoonishly announce how close behind the president’s enemies are.

Gomiashvili gives a reserved, understated performance, and he’s most enjoyable when engaging and protecting his grandson. As the young boy, Dachi Orvelashvili ends up stealing the show with a child’s performance that is neither wooden nor overdone. His gradual loss of innocence often seems a bit overplayed, but it’s the film’s most winning attribute.

Venice Film Festival Screening Room Review – (Horizons section) 118 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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