By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The children in A Time for Drunken Horses have none of the big-eyed openness that makes young people such effective emissaries in other Iranian films like The White Balloon. Instead, the nonprofessional cast of Bahman Ghobadi’s remarkable, slow, rough-edged feature reveals a simple, piercing grimness and determination framed by the gray, icy landscape of Iranian Kurdistan. That’s where the Kurdish director shot this documentary-like drama (it shared the Camera d’Or this year at Cannes) about a family of impoverished, orphaned siblings trying to raise money for an operation that may save the life of their mortally ill, malformed brother, Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini).

The title refers to the alcohol used to fortify pack animals in the snow; when the beasts keel over, drunk, they’re treated with a harshness no more or less severe than that experienced by Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), who, at the age of 12, becomes a smuggler in the snow, with no alcohol to fortify him. The sight is hard to take — and deeply absorbing. A-