BAHMAN GHOBADI'S third narrative feature, after "A Time for Drunken Horses" and "Marooned in Iraq," is far and away the Iranian Kurdish filmmaker's best work -- and that's saying something. With the force of a boot to the stomach, "Turtles Can Fly" has the ability to render viewers not just speechless and breathless but in a kind of emotional free fall, in a way that his earlier work, stunning in its own right, only hinted at. It's a soaring achievement, without ever leaving the ground.
Set in a small, mountainous Kurdish village, during the days just before and just after the American invasion of Iraq, "Turtles" centers around the 13-year-old "Satellite" (Soran Ebrahim), so nicknamed for his expertise in hooking up the scavenged hardware necessary for TV reception. But that's not his only skill. Scooting around town on his tricked-out bicycle, and sporting a backwards baseball cap while spouting random English phrases, Satellite is also adept at arms trading and other forms of hustling, riding herd on a crew of juvenile mine sweepers who earn their dangerous living clearing the surrounding fields of live explosives, risking life and limb in exchange for a bit of cash.
Soran Ebrahim plays the central role in Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly."
Into this horrifying milieu, which writer-director Ghobadi captures with an unblinking gaze that manages to be both deadpan and darkly comic, comes a strange and impossibly sad family unit: the orphaned Agrin (Avaz Latif) -- a gorgeous, world-weary adolescent -- and her armless, possibly clairvoyant brother Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), whose skill at disarming undetonated mines with his teeth (yes, teeth) more than hints at the source of his handicap. Traveling with them is a blind toddler, Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim), a boy who must be constantly kept on a leash so as not to wander into a minefield, pond or off a cliff, and yet who seems no more a burden to the saintly, long-suffering Hengov -- his brother? father? uncle? -- than Hengov's own physical impairment does.
Something about the child is eating at Agrin, though. Yet exactly what that is, and how it will ultimately affect these three tragic figures -- as well as the irrepressible Satellite, who has become smitten with the beautiful, depressive girl and who will eventually become caught up, physically and emotionally, in her fate -- will not be made clear until the film's end.
As he demonstrated with "Drunken Horses," Ghobadi has a gift for working with child actors, especially disabled ones, yet he exploits neither their infirmities nor their youth for our sympathy. There is a gravitas to Ghobadi's juvenile characters that, as with all classic tragedy heroes, moves us to experience both pity and fear for them. In the end, our catharsis comes like a thud, not in response to the fall of the mighty from on high but of the weak from their already low vantage point.
Turtles, of course, cannot fly (although one does seem to, very briefly, under Ghobadi's poetic camerawork). His film, on the other hand, takes to the air like a doomed but beautiful bird, tracing a flight, not of fancy, but of aching, poignant artlessness.
TURTLES CAN FLY (Unrated, 95 minutes) -- Contains some disturbing and violent imagery. In Kurdish with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row.