Movie Review: 'Turtles Can Fly'

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3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly" is the first feature film out of Iraq since the war, which would make it historic cinema in any case. But it's also a beautiful, intensely moving film. That makes it a cause for celebration.

Written and directed by the phenomenally gifted Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi ("A Time for Drunken Horses"), it's the story of refugee children camped near the Iraqi-Turkish border just before and during the U.S. invasion. The children and what happens to them are the focus; we glimpse the rest of the war only around the edges—in newscasts from Fox TV, through frantic reports and rumors in the camp, in distant views of the American troops rolling by, and in the omnipresent threat of the land mines. These mines come to symbolize all the danger of the area and they are responsible, along with Iraq's chemical weapons, for maiming and crippling many of the Kurdish children.

At the center of the film is an industrious, lively and generous boy nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), the main scrounger and go-to guy of the camp. Satellite, amazingly energetic and resourceful, acts as go-between for the kids and the stodgily conservative elders, and his two main projects are getting a satellite dish so the camp can watch TV news and aiding a troubled family that has won his heart. The family includes the armless and taciturn Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), who is rumored to have clairvoyant powers; pretty but terror-stricken little Agrin (Avaz Latif), who was sexually violated by Saddam Hussein's soldiers; and a boy, Risa, who may be the product of that rape.

Ghobadi's two other films, "Drunken Horses" and "Marooned in Iraq" (a.k.a. "Songs of My Motherland"), also were set on or near the edge of Iraq (in those films, the border with Iran) and it's obvious that, for him, the borderline represents a spiritual demarcation as well. The people he shows us, many of them children, are trapped in a danger zone created by the warring factions all around them.

They aren't all helpless; many, like Satellite, are admirably optimistic and energetic (Satellite, in fact, becomes a bit of camp dictator). But they are all the innocent victims of war, and Ghobadi excels in showing both sides of their lives: the angst and danger, the exhilaration and adventure. He is a master at wringing humor out of these emotionally charged backdrops and stories, without sacrificing any of their heart-rending reality.

Like many of the best current Iranian directors—Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon'), Majid Majidi ("The Children of Heaven") and the country's seminal cinema figure Abbas Kiarostami, for whom Ghobadi once worked as assistant—Ghobadi is a brilliant and highly sensitive director of youthful (and mostly non-professional) actors. That talent is especially evident here. The children of this movie, not just the principals but all the background and supporting characters as well, seem completely genuine and spontaneous throughout. But they're also capable of deep emotions and subtle nuances: Satellite's ebullient hustler's skills, Agrin's traumatized daze and Henkov's stoic strength. These kids thoroughly engage and entertain you, while making the war and its effects real and horrific.

Of all the current Iranian filmmakers, including the country's most popular director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Gabbeh," "Kandahar"), Ghobadi is the one who may appeal most strongly to Western audiences because his style is so vivid and the emotions he depicts so universal. Here, faced with potentially incendiary material, he throws no sympathy to Hussein's despotic regime, responsible for most of these refugees' misery. But he doesn't idealize the American army either, which passes by, mostly oblivious of the havoc wreaked in the camp. Instead, the movie becomes a more universal indictment of the ravages of war.

"Turtles Can Fly"— the name comes from one child's dream—is as beautifully shot, by cinematographer Shahriar Assadi, as it is sensitively written and directed and wonderfully acted. But the beauty of these images of desert and distant mountains in no way gilds or masks the horror that Ghobadi evokes. A brilliant humanist filmmaker present for a series of extraordinary events in Iran and Iraq, he has become, as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica were for Italy after World War II, a major artistic witness to a great historical convulsion. And like them, his heart belongs to the victims and children of that conflict, rather than the generals, politicians, warriors—or the people who planted the land mines.

'Turtles Can Fly' ('Lakposhtha Ham Parvaz Mikonand')

Directed and written by Bahman Ghobadi; photographed by Shahriar Assadi; edited by Moustafa Khergheposh, Hayedeh Safiyari; production designed by Ghobadi; music by Housein Alizadeh; produced by Ghobadi. In Kurdish, with English subtitles. An IFC Films release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating. (Parents cautioned for violent or disturbing imagery of children victimized by war.)

Agrin - Avaz Latif

Satellite - Soran Ebrahim

Pasheo - Saddam Hossein Feysal

Hangao - Hiresh Feysal Rahman

Rega - Abdol Rahman Karim

Shirko - Ajil Zibari

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