Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's eloquent third feature Half Moon works on both literal and allegorical levels as it follows an old Kurdish musician's journey back to his homeland. After nearly four decades living in exile in northern Iran, Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), a legendary musician who fears his life slipping, resolves to give a final concert in his native Iraq to celebrate the end of Saddam Hussein's reign. Making up his troupe are his dozen sons and Kako (Allah-Morad Rashtiani), the sweet-natured oaf who volunteers to drive them to their destination in a ramshackle school bus.
It sounds like a comedy waiting to happen, and indeed Ghobadi reaps a good measure of laughs out of the interactions among these old-school Kurds living in modern times. They record their lyrics on a laptop and use online maps to navigate their way across remote mountains; they may be down-and-out, but they have email addresses and cell phones. They're as connected as the rest of us. These bits of incongruity are weaved seamlessly into Ghobadi's script, so these observations feel as real as they are humorous.
Integral to Mamo's performance is the participation of a female singer—something forbidden in ultra-orthodox Iran. In one of Half Moon 's numerous shifts into magical realism, he finds his singer, named Hesho (Hedye Tehrani), in a valley where all the songstresses silenced by the Iranian state are banished (a bit like Biblical pariahs). The group proceeds toward Iraq, but Hesho's more nervous about her singing abilities than whether she will pass the border checkpoints safely. Mamo's plans fall in jeopardy time and again by border authorities first in Iraq, then in Turkey as he loses, finds, and loses Hesho again. Demoralized and sensing death's approach, Mamo orders Kako to turn the bus around, when an unexpected visitor drops in to aid the musician in completing his journey.
It's at this point, when the dream world breaks borders with the real world, that Half Moon 's messages become a series of symbolic imagery and utterances meant to be decoded. Ghodabi employs an ambitiously lyrical strategy, evocative of Dreyer or Tarkovsky, and it pays off in a series of compelling closing sequences that continue to prove the filmmaker's fluid command of the medium.
While Half Moon 's second-half is diffuse and repetitive, seeking its deeper meanings—those embedded within Mamo's parallel searches for a female singer and for his homeland—makes for compelling viewing. Both singer and land prove elusive, within grasp but always out of reach, evocative maybe of the Kurdish people's own frustrated struggle to secure a nation for themselves. Indeed, Mamo's musical troupe travels along the breadth of land that the Kurdish people have informally called their home, though, as we see, all of it is under the jurisdiction of alien governments.
Whether Mamo's mortality—his own end game—is a veiled elegy to the Kurdish people or an optimistic grace note in praise of their historic resilience is up to the viewer. Either way, Ghobadi offers a fascinating portrait of an underrepresented people, rich in humor, pathos and possible permutations.
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Ismail Ghaffari, Allah Morad Rashtiani and Hedye Tehrani
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Bahman Ghobadi
Genre: Drama; Kurdish- and Persian-language, subtitled
Running time: 107 min.
Release date: December 14, 2007 NY, December 28 LA