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The President: A timeless, incisive film about despotism

A deposed ruler tries to escape his country's revolution in director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's latest.

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In Mohsen Makhmalbaf's political drama The President, the brutal dictator of an unnamed country (the movie was shot mainly in the Republic of Georgia) is deposed in a popular rebellion and goes on the run with his five-year-old grandson. Disguising themselves as refugees, they melt into the general populace, and as they cross paths with ordinary citizens, the old man begins to reckon with all the misery he's caused and the boy begins to see through the grandfather he once revered. The fable of a leader going incognito among his people is as ancient as the King Arthur legend and as modern as the last days of Saddam Hussein; Makhmalbaf turns it into a story at once timeless and contemporary, eventually pushing past the immediate matters of guilt and comeuppance to ask whether democracy can ever flourish amid an endless cycle of oppression and revenge.

Though Makhmalbaf is primarily concerned with moving outward from the president's story to the larger society, the grandson character also pulls one inward to consider the psychology of a dictator. At the beginning, the president (Misha Gomiashvili) and his grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili) wear identical uniforms—they might almost be Dr. Evil and Mini-Me—which sets up an explicit parallel between them. The grandson, Makhmalbaf has explained, "can be seen as the innocence embedded in the tyrannical president, who is nevertheless still a human being." At the same time, the relationship between man and boy introduces "the idea of regret. As the grandson witnesses one tragedy after another, he constantly questions his grandfather about the horrors he is seeing. Answering these questions is something that is shameful for the president, given his own responsibility. But facing his grandson's questions is also what brings the president back to his own humanity."

Oddly, my own reading of the movie was almost the opposite of what Makhmalbaf intended. Anyone who's watched a kid burn ants with a magnifying glass can tell you that children are far from innocent, and many of the ugly psychological traits common to dictators—sadism, narcissism, paranoia—have their roots in childhood emotions that most of us outgrow as we escape our narrow sense of self and find common cause with the rest of humanity. The title character of The President isn't really an adult reconnecting with his childhood innocence; he's an overgrown child suddenly jolted into maturity by seeing things he's been shielded from all his life. And though the grandson may react in wide-eyed terror to the violence he and his grandfather encounter on the run, before they flee the presidential palace he shows every sign of turning into a despot himself. As we all learned from Uday and Qusay Hussein, the children of dictators can be so monstrous they make their fathers look like Mister Rogers.

The magical opening scene shows how eagerly children can embrace and abuse power over others, and how that same abuse can follow them into adulthood. As the president and his grandson sit on the palace roof one night, the lights of the city spreading out before them in the darkness, the boy demands ice cream but the old man offers him something better—omnipotence. "When you take my place, with one call, you will be able to turn off all the lights!" the president declares. To demonstrate, he telephones the city power station and orders them to plunge the city into darkness. As the panorama of lights goes black, the boy's face opens in wonder. "I want to command too!" he cries, and the president hands him the receiver. The boy orders the lights restored, then cut again. But when he orders the lights restored a second time and nothing happens, the sirens growing in the distance begin to make sense. The revolution has begun, and the power station is under siege.

All young children are narcissistic, though once they enter school and have to interact with classmates and teachers, most begin to develop a more humble view of themselves in relation to others. The president seems to have missed out on that little lesson, however: his official portrait is ubiquitous across the land, plastered on every available surface and prominently displayed in every home (probably out of fear more than love). "Why haven't they hung my photo?" the grandson asks as he and the old man speed down the highway in the presidential limousine, passing a series of banners with the president's image. Makhmalbaf can't resist turning the knife here: to the president's dismay, some of the banners have been torched, flames eating farther into his image with each successive portrait. Once he and the boy are on their own and the military has offered a million-dollar bounty for the president's capture, the familiarity of his face to every citizen becomes a double-edged sword.

By that time the president has plenty of legitimate fears, but there's also a sense that, before it all came apart, he was capable of inventing threats. When pressed to commute the death sentence of a 16-year-old rebel, he sputters, "If we don't punish this kid now, later on, all the kids will start a fucking revolution." The grandson has been taught never to eat or drink anything without a servant tasting it first, lest it be poisoned. Later, when the pair are wandering the countryside, the president coaches the boy to identify him to strangers as a political prisoner. This sets off a game of "why"—every child's favorite—that betrays the president's paranoid logic. "What does 'political prisoner' mean?" asks the boy. "It means that I was the president's enemy," his grandfather replies. "Why were you the president's enemy?" asks the boy. "If you say I was the president, they will kill us," his grandfather replies. "Why would they kill us?" asks the boy. His grandfather replies, "Because they are the president's enemies."

When the boy asks why the people are the president's enemies, his grandfather terminates the conversation, but the stories that emerge during their journey answer that question. Over the years the president has tortured and killed countless opponents; one was burned alive, another hanged in front of his own mother. The grandson never displays any such wanton cruelty, yet his willingness to plunge an entire city into darkness for his own amusement betrays the same selfishness and lust for power that his grandfather never outgrew. As the old saying goes, the child is father to the maniac.  v

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