From Venice, Peter Bradshaw dispatches back home to the Guardian: “Perhaps even Mohsen Makhmakbaf’s most devoted admirers weren’t expecting his latest film—here opening the Festival’s Orrizonti sidebar section—to be quite so absorbing and gripping. But that’s what it is, and the director discloses a unsuspected gift for satire and suspense, along with some old-fashioned storytelling gusto. Makhmakbaf is the co-screenwriter with his partner, Marziyeh Meshkiny—herself an established filmmaker—and they have between them created a gutsy drama and a vivid parable. It’s the sort of movie that Milos Foreman might have directed forty years ago but it feels contemporary and as sharp as a tack.”
“The opening credits to The President tell us we’re in an ‘unnamed country,’ but this could easily be Libya in the months Gaddafi went on the run,” suggests Time Out‘s Cath Clarke. “It begins with the President (Misha Gomiashvili) in full military regalia, playing with his eight-year-old grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili), who’s dressed like a mini-me dictator in a matching little soldier’s outfit. To show the kid what power, real power, looks like, the President picks up the phone and orders the lights to be turned off in the city. On. Off. On. Off. His Majesty (as everyone calls him) has got the command of a nation at his fingertips. Until he hasn’t. Makhmalbaf says he was inspired by the Arab Spring, and his film is pitched somewhere between allegory and satire.”
“Shot in Georgia with an all-Georgian cast, it ignores the religious issues at stake in the Arab turmoil to concentrate on a greedy ruling family that has reduced its subjects to abject poverty, and the violence of civil war that follows when they are ousted from power.” Deborah Young for the Hollywood Reporter: “All this is portrayed in such elementary terms it could be the libretto of a 19th century operetta, or maybe a children’s film, were it not so disturbing.”
For Variety‘s Jay Weissberg, The President “unfortunately offers a simplified and simplistic reduction, akin to an ancient morality tale without the ancients’ brevity—rather than sophistication cloaked in innocence, the pic feels like didacticism submerged in naivete…. What’s especially frustrating is that the message is an important (if obvious) one: Tyranny corrupts not just the tyrant but his subjects, and violence is an almost inevitable product of revolution when a nation’s people have been so traumatized. Real-life examples are legion, making the generic story here feel even weaker.”
But at CineVue, John Bleasdale gives the film four out of five stars: “The President is a vile character, using whatever he has in his power to secure his and his grandson’s safety. A loyal bodyguard who dies saving him has his body dumped at the side of the road; a gun will be pulled on anyone to secure their help. His one redeeming attribute his genuine love for his grandson, but often intense cruelty is underwritten by some devoted sentimental affection—Hitler and his dog, the Krays and their mother. For his part, the grandson is a genuinely good soul, an innocent abroad who is only partly fooled by the President’s Benigni-like attempt to turn their plight into some kind of charade. The grandson is a witness to the savagery around him, a cinematic descendant of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979).”
Updates, 8/31: “At times fantastic (quotes from Benigni’s Life is Beautiful), at times crudely realistic The President doesn’t have the symbolic power of many of Makhmalbaf’s films which focus on the identity of the Iranian people or of his powerful Kandahar (2001),” finds Camillo de Marco at Cineuropa.
Vassilis Economou finds that “Makhmalbaf is trying to deal with every possible aspect of his story and he seems like he was lost in translating his own ideas.”
Update, 9/7: For Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell, The President “plays like an obvious sermon about authoritarianism and the bitter fallacy of revenge…. Gomiashvili gives a reserved, understated performance, and he’s most enjoyable when engaging and protecting his grandson. As the young boy, Dachi Orvelashvili ends up stealing the show with a child’s performance that is neither wooden nor overdone. His gradual loss of innocence often seems a bit overplayed, but it’s the film’s most winning attribute.”