Review: Mardan (Ghobadi, 2014) – MVFF 2015

Still from the movie Mardan

As a child playing by the river, Mardan (Hossein Hasan) witnesses his younger brother gang-raped and then killed by a group of men. Now a corrupt police officer in the same region of Iraqi Kurdistan, he goes about his duties like a ghost, haunted by his memories. One day Morad (Feyyaz Duman), a Kurdish man returning to his home in Turkey, mysteriously vanishes, along with 5000 USD of his pay. When his wife Leila (Helly Luv) comes looking for him, Mardan, who is leading the investigation, finds himself slowly beginning to care for her. Her presence forces him to scrutinize not only the facts of her husband’s disappearance but also the state of his own soul.

But Morad’s case is not as straightforward as it may first appear. The film (which was Iraq’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2014) hopscotches back and forth in time, revealing a bizarre tangle of mishaps, which all seem to be a variation on the theme of guilt. Interestingly, the characters experience the most remorse over episodes that are out of their control (or at least beyond their intention) and the least, it seems, over the petty sins that they commit to cover up (either directly or metaphorically) their guilt.

Unfortunately, the film’s plot is also anything but straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with making the audience work a little (or even a lot) if the payoff is worth it (think Memento, Inception, or Primer), but Mardan is confusing and disjointed to no real purpose. Director Batin Ghobadi‘s jumps are often so abrupt the viewer doesn’t realize she’s gone back in time until the sequence is half over. Then she’s left scrambling to understand what just occurred as the next, often equally baffling, scene unfolds. But the discoveries yielded by these chrono-whiplashes are often just as random and incomprehensible as the tactics that reveal them.

With all the focus on peeling back Mardan’s mystery, there is little room left over for character development. We witness his dulled anguish but, despite that (dare I say melodramatically?) harrowing first scene, we care little for his gruff suffering. It’s not that I need to be “let in” exactly–just that there seems to be nothing to know. Luckily with all the effort we expend trying to figure out what’s going on we have little bandwidth leftover to wonder why we should care about Mardan.

Nonetheless, with each frame as arresting as a National Geographic photograph, Mardan is worth watching for its cinematography alone. The aching beauty of Iraqi Kurdistan’s landscapes serves as a poignant backdrop for the characters’ torment, as if forcing us to wonder how the world can be so beautiful when such ugly things befall us. Here, too, is a picture of an Iraq most of us have never seen, occupied not by armies but by stately peaks, plunging valleys, seductive rivers. But that was over a year ago. Now there’s a good deal more of that ugliness, I suspect.

Mardan screened at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.