Written and directed by Batin Ghobadi
Batin Ghobadi’s debut feature is an elusive crime drama that unfolds in the mountainous borderland of Iraqi Kurdistan. The younger brother of Bahman Ghobadi, best known for A Time for Drunken Horses, the writer-director was born in the region, albeit on the Iranian side of the border, and its troubled history resonates obliquely throughout the film. It is suggested that the region is engaged in a period of modernisation, through major construction projects and crackdowns on corruption, but its landscape remains rugged and primal, its men desolate and wracked with guilt.
The title character (Hossein Hasan) is a troubled police officer, suffering from a secret illness and haunted by a traumatic childhood memory. He is called on to investigate the sudden disappearance of a site worker, Morad (Feyyaz Duman) who was travelling home after completing a short-term contract, carrying his earnings with him. It appears to be a murder case but was in fact an accident, committed by the impetuous Karzan (Ismail Zagros), who ran over Morad while driving home from a brothel. The situation is complicated when Mardan is involved in a strange parallel incident, which casts a greater shadow over the investigation and drags him back into a state of uncertainty and remorse.
Ghobadi handles the narrative with subtlety, using an unusual non-linear structure to inject ambiguity and irony. The plot unravels in layers and only comes together right at the end, making it more difficult than it should be to understand. Certain things which are taken for granted turn out not to be true and small details, only mentioned in passing, prove important later on. The overall effect is to build an atmosphere that is vague and uneasy; the past has more clarity than the present, which becomes slippery like a memory or a dream.
In tone and visual style, Mardan resembles Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, with its intensely focused compositions and formidable landscapes. However, Ghobadi is unable to achieve a comparable effect, consistently evoking his characters’ personal demons rather than revealing anything more profound. Hasan’s performance in the leading role is initially effective but soon becomes monotonous; Mardan carries the same burden of anguish throughout the film, too hopeless to be redeemed. There is an interesting contrast between his despondent attitude and Karzan’s active if uncanny response to his guilt, but it is never explored in detail.
The only character that can draw an emotional reaction from Mardan is Leila (Helly Luv), who arrives to find out what caused Morad’s death, along with her son Kurdu. She gives him a fleeting sense of purpose but he cannot capitalise on it due to his corruption and deeply rooted flaws. Having lost his brother to the river, Mardan finds the landscape oppressive, but Leila tells him that “everything is beautiful here”, despite the region’s problems. Ghobadi succeeds in capturing Kurdistan’s rugged beauty but too often allows his unique debut to sink into brooding on the past.
– Rob Dickie