Visually ravishing and politically earnest, “Son of Babylon” is a road movie that sometimes lacks a road, and an Iraqi drama that recalls the parable-making of late 20th-century Iranian cinema. Watching the journey of young Ahmed and his sorrowful grandmother, one would be hard pressed not to be thinking Kiarostami, Panahi and Majidi, and the metaphorical conceits of lost shoes and balloons. But helmer Mohamed al-Daradji’s characters are pursuing just one lost man, while al-Daradji chases a poetic answer for the crimes of Saddam Hussein. Arthouse theatrical play seems likely, if limited.
Experience has told us that characters in Middle Eastern cinema wear a bit more of their emotions on their sleeves than their Western counterparts, and as we watch young Ahmed (Yasser Taleeb) and his grandmother, Um-Ibrahim (Shezhad Hussein) go in search of the boy’s father, the obstacles they face along the way evoke disparate reactions — catatonia and hysteria.
Retitling the film “Crouching Grandma, Screaming Youngster” wouldn’t be entirely off, as Ahmed does becomes a bit shrill. But their quest is sad and noble: It’s three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and they are on an almost clueless pursuit of Ahmed’s father, a Kurd imprisoned since the first Gulf War who hasn’t been heard from since. The chance of his having survived his time in prison is bleak. That knowledge informs the entire journey.
Like similar Huck-and-Jim-type adventures (Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro” comes to mind) the storyline here is meant to illuminate both the interpersonal and the universal. This it does, through a catalog of misadventures, mishaps and meaningful encounters — the most meaningful being their temporary alliance with Musa (the wonderful, doe-eyed Bashir al-Majid), who helps the pair to an extent that suggests atonement — and, when that is shown to be the case, the three-way relationship gets flipped, to great dramatic effect.
“Son of Babylon” is elegiac; the evocation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the land’s mythic glory, contrasts dramatically with the country’s ravaged present, made worse by the countless bodies and mass graves that have been discovered since 2003, and with them the extent of Saddam Hussein’s crimes against his people (not excluding the Kurds). “Son of Babylon” may spin its wheels occasionally, but al-Daradji’s ability to marry poetry to agitprop is admirable.
Production values are first-rate, especially the sound, by Glenn Freemantle.