Comic and tragic `Turtle'


April 15, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Comic poetry (and hope) battle preachiness (and despair) to a stand-still in Turtles Can Fly, set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraq-Turkey border just before and during the 2003 Iraq war. It ends up more a mosaic than a drama. The writer-director, Bahman Ghobadi, lays in sharp-edged pieces of absurdity and trauma. But he arrives at an oddly static portrait of thwarted energy in dislocated characters.

Almost all of them are children, including an engaging adolescent hustler called Satellite (Soran Ebrahim). He's made a business out of defusing and extracting land mines and has turned the camp's juvenile population into his work force. A fresh arrival, a teenage boy who lost both arms to a mine, comes to challenge Satellite's authority with the help of mysterious (and never-explained) prophetic powers. But any rift is brief.

Satellite, no fool, respects the newcomer's seer-like abilities and adores his pretty sister - though it soon becomes clear that this girl's sad eyes derive from more than common deprivation or an innocent beauty's fear of being hit on. Her gloom is tied to an infant boy whom Satellite assumes is just another sibling.

Ghobadi withholds the wandering trio's prior history, then pastes it to the screen bit by bit. Despite their haunting presences, his method curtails our involvement in their family tragedy and his movie. After we glean why the girl tries to lose the baby and, repeatedly, stares over the edge of a cliff, the film becomes one more case of waiting for the other slipper to drop.

What keeps the picture alive is Ghobadi's surprising, often explosive grasp of visual farce. He starts the movie with a string of refugee kids struggling to erect a line of towering TV antennae to bring in war reports. Satellite, true to his nickname, convinces the community that they need a dish - then races through dozens of profane or irreverent "forbidden channels" before he arrives at the dumbfounding but permitted spectacle of Fox News.

This director is determined that his audience recognize the vulnerability of children during social upheaval - and unlike predecessors like Vittorio De Sica (The Children Are Watching Us), he's more insistent than revealing. Yet his startling comic instincts never completely abandon him, even at the bitter climax. After a live mine injures Satellite, a lieutenant brings the boy an enormous arm. It's cut from a statue of Saddam Hussein - and it's a fitting prize for anyone wounded at his hands.

Turtles Can Fly

Starring Soran Ebrahim

Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

Released by IFC Films


Time 98 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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