An allegorical lesson about dictatorships and the cycle of violence they breed, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “The President” unfortunately offers a simplified and simplistic reduction, akin to an ancient morality tale without the ancients’ brevity – rather than sophistication cloaked in innocence, the pic feels like didacticism submerged in naivete. Set in an unnamed country reminiscent of many recent despotic nations, the story follows a fallen autocrat and his artless grandson fleeing murderous revolutionaries bent on vengeance. Some may champion the film’s topicality while pointing to the master filmmaker’s familiarity with authoritarian regimes, yet more was expected from such a source. The Makhmalbaf name ensures fest exposure and limited international sales.
Perhaps it’s the Georgian location that make “The President” seem styled on autocratic former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, though Makhmalbaf claims particular inspiration from recently fallen Arab dictatorships, and certainly a scene toward the end comes straight out of Gaddafi’s story. The President (Misha Gomiashvili) is perched with his young grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) in a windowed aerie overlooking his capital. They play a game: The President telephones his aides to switch off all the city’s lights, then passes the phone to his grandson so he can play at being commander. Off go the lights, but they don’t go back on: Revolution is afoot.
His Majesty (as everyone calls the President) gathers up his wife (Eka Kakhiani) and two daughters (Nuki Koshkelishvili, Elene Bezarashvili) along with his grandson and takes them to a waiting plane, but the little boy refuses to go since his grandpa is staying. On the way back to the palace, street battles block their Cadillac limo, the army mutinies, and the driver ankles. Abandoned near a rudimentary village, the President switches clothes with a barber (Zura Begalishvili), and grandfather and grandson flee to a prostitute (la Sukhitashvili) whom the autocrat knew in younger days.
The floridly theatrical scene that follows is designed to show the monstrous tyrant getting in touch with the better man he was before he was corrupted by power, as well as to allow the prostitute the role’s usual metaphorical purpose as a stand-in for a society brutalized by violence. In both cases, the device feels obvious and hoary. Anarchy descends on the country, the military rape and steal, and the ex-President and his grandson wind up traveling with a group of just-sprung political prisoners who represent a range of opinions.
Of course “The President,” co-written by Makhmalbaf and wife Marziyeh Meshkiny, is designed as allegory, yet the lack of subtlety reduces the lessons to platitudes. What’s especially frustrating is that the message is an important (if obvious) one: Tyranny corrupts not just the tyrant but his subjects, and violence is an almost inevitable product of revolution when a nation’s people have been so traumatized. Real-life examples are legion, making the generic story here feel even weaker.
Makhmalbaf’s usually intelligent handling of childhood’s state of grace versus the adult world’s corruption is reduced to its most basic formula, so the grandson’s stream of ingenuous questions — “what is death?,” “what is torture?” — becomes merely tedious. The helmer also seems to be aiming for certain Lear-like parallels, yet the age of philosopher kings is long past.
The rapport between Gomiashvili, a leading stage star in Georgia, and newcomer tyke Orvelashvili, is by far the most developed aspect of the film. When stripped of the play between innocence and guile, their relationship takes on the affecting character of protective grandfather and frightened child witnessing far more than any kid should see, and it’s this quality that offers something grounded in real emotion. Certain striking visuals, such as a phalanx of footmen preventing the boy from re-entering the palace, and shots of the harsh, undeveloped landscape, offer intermittent rewards.