What happens when an ironfisted dictator is forced to confront his own humanity?
This is the question Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf seeks to answer for us with his newest entry, The President. A bleak, slow-paced Georgian-language film about a dictator-in-disguise trying to escape from the rebels in his own country, The President was the primary opener (along with Birdman) at the 2014 Venice Film Festival in Italy, and went on to win the Golden Hugo among other accolades. And rightly so.
Honestly, I hadn't heard of it until a few nights ago when it suddenly popped up as a Netflix suggestion, and the description immediately intrigued me: "Rebels end his reign of terror and chase him through the countryside. Now it's this tyrant's turn to fear for his life." -Hmm, I thought. A dictator protagonist, you say? Interesting...
And so, I gave it a chance, and ended up very glad that I did.
Commencing Scenes: Exploring The Psychopathology of a Tyrant
The film opens on some beautifully-illumined Georgian street, following a line of festooned lighting that seems almost numinous. This, while an announcer for some national radio station (not shown onscreen) praises what is only referred to as "the city of light." The soliloquy is obviously ironic, as the viewer knows from the outset that this purported "city of light" is in fact cloaked in the darkness of a dictatorship. The irony becomes more pronounced when the main character, the President, is finally shown a few moments later, directing subalterns to toy with the city's power grids (i.e., cutting the city's power on and off, repeatedly) simply to amuse his grandson.
I'm highlighting this opening juxtaposition because I think it's a shrewd insight into the minds and methods of dictators... a sort of psychopathology is being addressed here. The idea that you, the dictator, "own" a country like a child owns a toy. That it is your plaything, to use however you wish. And I mean, I've just never seen this idea captured so subtly, and yet, so forcefully and abrasively in cinema before. Not only that, but considering that the past few years have brought us the Arab Spring, the quagmire in Syria, and the Ukrainian revolution, The President is uniquely relevant and topical for a work of fiction. It's relevant in that while many films explore the other side of such conflicts (see Soderbergh's Che, for example) this one is dealing with something more tricky: The question of what the human response is -or should be- with regard to tyrants. -And it doesn't provide answers, either. The President is not a preachy film. Like other great works of arthouse cinema, it simply asks question(s), and then lets us make up our own minds.
At any rate, I don't want to give a point-by-point plot analysis, as this would be cumbersome. I personally find it more interesting to dissect the themes. That is, what the film is trying to convey and the questions it's actually asking us. This will be more interesting, I believe.
Who Deserves Our Humanity?
The most dominating and ubiquitous idea explored throughout the entirety of The President is what, precisely, constitutes humanity (as in humaneness, or benevolence) and is this always appropriate? There is no discussion or debate -even subtextually- about pacifism vs. militarism; this is made irrelevant by the framework of the plot. Rather the question appears to be, "in the context of war, even a just (or, perhaps 'understandable') war, is there room for humanity? What would that look like? What is the line between just / understandable war, and all out bedlam? Is there even a difference anymore?"
Consider that by all accounts, the President (who is not named in the film... he's simply known as "the President," or, occasionally, "Your Majesty,") is not a likable character. While in power he toys with the citizenry (as seen in the opening moments of the film), he is brutal (he's shown signing the death warrant of a teenage rebel fighter in the prenominate scene, and accounts of his minions torturing political dissidents frequently reoccur within the narrative). Not to mention, he is obviously oblivious to the suffering of his citizens. So, by most metrics, he probably deserves some form of punishment, -maybe even a brutal one.
The point the film makes is: his sins aside and however great they are, he is still a human being. As he flees through his war-torn country with his grandson (played with near-unbelievable brilliance by child actor Dachi Orvelashvili), you get a sense that, for as unlikable as he is, nevertheless the President is still capable of empathy and love. He spends nearly every waking moment of the movie trying to protect the son of his now-murdered primogeniture, for example. Often, when confronted with the vestiges of brutality that still exists in his country, due, in part, to his own rule, there are very real flashes of quiet, unarticulated regret / sympathy on the President's face (which is another testament to the great acting in this film).
By the time the story arrives at its climax, the protagonist's humanity has been slowly revealed in a wonderful onion-peel type way, so that you actually find yourself wanting him to escape. His crimes have not been hidden from us even in the slightest, and yet, by the time the suspense of will he or will he not get caught reaches its apotheosis; we find ourselves desiring that he find safety and refuge somewhere else.
There is an interesting dialogue to this effect at the end of the film, but I'm trying to avoid spoilers here. Suffice it to say, The President doesn't tell you what to do with these emotions, -with your desire to see a tyrant go free. It just thinks that it is important that you should have them.
A rather brilliant way to demonstrate humanity as a concept, I'd say.
In Watching The President, You May Learn That You're Uncomfortable With Revenge
A concurrent idea explored within this olla podrida of themes is a simple, almost atavistic one: i.e., that of revenge. The President and his grandson, in the course of their attempted escape, are consistently thrown in with rebels and average citizens who, not knowing that he is the hunted dictator (he is disguised as a travelling musician), habitually highlight the brutal things they'd like to see happen to their deposed leader. Not only do they discuss what they'd like to see happen, but they address why. There are a plethora of horror stories recounted regarding his regime, everything from their being tortured to seeing relatives murdered before their very eyes.
Now, the modus operandi of great storytelling is, in my estimation, not always putting forth a completely new idea (there is nothing new under the sun, as they say), but sometimes it is sufficient to merely investigate old premises or concepts in a new way. So, even though we've seen revenge-as-a-theme covered before in everything from literary classics like Moby Dick, to modern action films like (the gag-tastic) John Wick, nevertheless The President revisits this material in a new and refreshing light. It does so by putting us not in the shoes of those seeking revenge, but rather in the shoes of the one whom revenge is being sought against. And what's more, the film does this all the while admitting that he, the protagonist, probably even deserves it.
The thing is though, deserve it or not, we're not made to feel comfortable with his comeuppance. As the President's journey draws to a close and his demise *seems* more and more inevitable, we find ourselves overcome with mixed feelings... as if our rational minds, that part of us that believes to some extent in eye for an eye, is altogether at odds with some other part of ourselves that seeks to be benevolent and magnanimous. (This could probably be tied back in to the humanity theme in some clever way, but I shall refrain from attempting this for the sake of brevity).
Troubling Questions About Justice
The final (and most subtle) theme in The President is a question of justice. As in, what, exactly, does justice constitute?
In a strict Hammurabi sense, justice would be simply inflicting upon someone else what they have inflicted upon you, but Makhmalbaf doesn't let us off that easy. Throughout the film we find ourselves questioning whether or not we'd actually like to see this type of justice meted out. Would we really like to see the President, as deplorable as he is, tortured in the same way that his political opponents were? Do we want to see his young grandson hanged as he (presumably) did to the grandchildren and children of others? Do we want to see him burned alive, or hacked to pieces, or even shot (he is threatened with all of the above and more toward the film's end, after all), and if so, what does that say about us, if anything?
If the answer to do we really want to see this is a resounding no (which I assume will be the case with most viewers), then what, exactly is justice in the first place? And who gets to set such parameters? What does it mean to go too far? How much forgiveness should we have? How altruistic should we be?
The President answers none of these questions, but it sure asks the hell out of them. And it does so in such a way that is, while acutely impactful, still nuanced and delicate. The movie doesn't judge, for example, the mobs or rebels that want to kill their oppressor. It doesn't even judge the oppressor himself. Most importantly, it doesn't judge us, the viewers, by being overly preachy or in-your-face with it's message. It lets us form our own opinions. But it does (rather cleverly) ask one simple thing of us: that we be cautious in dealing with these ideas.
A Few Final Thoughts:
As stated, I've left some things out for the sake of time, space, and with a desire to not ruin the experience of this film for other viewers. I would've liked to cover a bit more of the plot, and maybe even discuss the director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (he's a fascinating guy. Iranian-born, fought for a revolutionary group himself in the 70's, now expelled from his home country, etc.), -even the music and Georgian language prevalent in the movie (the language in particular fascinates me, if only because I'm not aware of any other Georgian film of such immense thematic and aesthetic merit) -all of this could've been elaborated upon. Even so, I'm satisfied with this as an introduction, and I hope it inspires more people to watch such a delightfully dreary work of art.
It should be noted that the film does drag a little toward the end of the first act, but you'd be well advised to plod through that lull. The last half is where the magic really starts to happen thematically, and things really take off.
Overall, and despite some minor drawbacks, The President is an important work, I think, and worth the more discerning viewer's time. It's on Netflix Instant right now, for those of you who have an account, and I highly recommend taking advantage of that fact.
Seriously guys, don't miss this one.