A Half-Mad Iraqi Marvel

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Mirza, a singer and a Kurd, is an old man with a fierce white moustache and a fierce will. He's still in love with the wife, Hanareh, who left him for his best friend two decades earlier. Now, in the aftermath of Gulf War I, she has sent word that she needs his help. Accompanied by their two sons Barat and Audeh, he sets out to find her. When he does so, she, terribly wounded by the chemical warfare Saddam Hussein loosed on the Kurds, does not let him see her.

That's about all there is to the plot of Marooned in Iraq. But this half-mad movie by Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses), entirely played by Kurdish actors unknown to most of us, is a marvel — an odyssey through chaos and hysteria that finally ends in redemptive, if provisional, peace.

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The Kurds — numbering about 20 million — are considered the world's largest stateless minority, and on the evidence of this film, their long history of oppression has placed them on an emotional hair trigger. For most of the movie Mirza and his sons are either screaming at or being screamed at by everyone they encounter. This is often comical — except that nearly everyone they meet is also armed.

For example, a village matchmaker may have a letter containing a clue to Hanareh's whereabouts. Unfortunately, he has made a match a local thug disapproves of, and as punishment, he has been buried up to his neck in the dirt of a hillside. This does not prevent the thug from forcing Mirza and his sons to sing at the wedding. Which, naturally, is broken up by gunfire.

Yet the trio persist and find sweetness in their path too. Barat hears a woman singing and proposes marriage to her sight unseen. She refuses when he tells her that once they marry, she will not be allowed to sing in public. The other son, Audeh, has seven wives and 13 children — all girls. He has vowed to keep marrying until he gets a son, but someone proposes he adopt a couple of war-orphan boys. The astonishing simplicity of the idea stuns him into rationality.

So it goes in this magical movie. An itinerant schoolteacher uses the warplanes constantly overflying the fleeing Kurds as, of all things, a metaphor for mankind's aspirations. Barat finally sees the woman whose voice he loves — weepingly searching a mass grave for her brother's remains. And although Mirza never sees his long-lost beloved, he comes away from their near encounter with her child. The last we see of the old man and child, they are disappearing into a snowy field — heading toward an end we do not know.

There is often a bleak beauty to Marooned in Iraq's landscapes. But pictorialism aside, it is a unique experience — abrupt, jagged, almost childlike in its ever shifting tones. Driven equally by wayward and bestartling incidents that blow up and blow away, and by an old man's abiding passion, it's a film that is exotic in its rhythms yet utterly comprehensible in its humanity. You'll have to seek it out in its limited release, but no current movie is more worth the effort.