Locarno 2023 Review: Dissent and Dreams Intersect in CRITICAL ZONE's Midnight Tehran Odyssey
The top honor at this year's prominent Swiss film event was awarded to Iranian filmmaker Ali Ahmadzadeh for Critical Zone, a compelling nocturnal journey through Tehran. Anticipation surrounded the film even before the festival's commencement, given that Iranian authorities had requested its withdrawal due to its clandestine production. Ahmadzadeh is currently prohibited from leaving Iran by official mandate. Meanwhile, his peer, Saeed Roustayi, faced legal repercussions for presenting his work Leila's Brothers at Cannes.
Set against the vibrant pulse of Tehran, Critical Zone chronicles the journey of Amir (Amir Pousti), a lone driver navigating the city's undercurrents while involved in illicit drug trade. Car drives and road narratives have evolved into potent motifs in recent Iranian cinema. While Abbas Kiarostami notably championed this theme, its echoes are discernible in works by Jafar Panahi and Panah Panahi, among others.
Ahmadzadeh employs the car as a metaphor for freedom and resistance, with Amir navigating the city's peripheries to deliver illicit substances to those on the margins. Amir, far from a mere pusher, caters to a diverse clientele, including ailing elderly patients in hospitals. His purpose transcends commerce: in an authoritarian, theocratic nation marked by stringent policies, he seeks to alleviate the burdens of others. Navigating his own personal challenges, Amir's endeavors align more with the ethos of a social worker than a conventional occupation.
In a landscape where Iranian cinema grapples with myriad restrictions, including an ever-watchful board of censors, Ahmadzadeh adopts a bold, avant-garde approach. Critical Zone shatters numerous taboos: beyond depicting drug dealings and usage, the film daringly portrays women without hijabs inside Amir’s vehicle and incorporates a notably audacious female auditory expression. The film veers away from state-sanctioned norms, embracing a profound spirit of freedom that, by Iranian standards, can be considered quite radical.
Interestingly, the film refrains from portraying Tehran and Iranian society's shadows, instead spotlighting a liberating realm that embraces marginalized individuals. Through this lens, Amir emerges not just as a rogue actor, but as a beacon of emancipation and acceptance. His audacious escapades read as acts of defiance against the omnipresent authorities that prescribe societal norms. Viewed more broadly, Critical Zone captures a society undergoing transformation.
Critical Zone isn't just 'punk' in spirit and content. Filmed clandestinely on location, Ahmadzadeh often employs unconventional and striking angles, particularly during car sequences, while maintaining a haunting ambiance indoors. Given the production constraints, there's a documentary-like authenticity to his framing, yet he also ventures into the slightly surreal with neon-illuminated streets and dreamlike sequences. The film's raw aesthetic, combined with its mesmerizing and disorienting cinematography, bears a kinship to the audacious cinema of Gaspar Noé.
Ahmadzadeh structures the narrative into cohesively fragmented segments, amplifying the ethereal yet coherent effect of Amir's nightly journey, which at times teeters on the precipice of the surreal. Ingeniously, he incorporates the detached voice of GPS navigation, guiding the protagonist through contemporary Tehran and simultaneously alerting him to nearby police presence.
Critical Zone is imbued with the nuanced tension characteristic of Shahram Mokri's works, such as Careless Crime, subtly highlighting the region's socio-political landscape. This bold venture into the night serves both as a sociological exploration and a statement of dissent in a society approaching pivotal change. "Critical Zone" stands as an emblem of resistance, rebellion, and unyielding optimism.
- Ali Ahmadzadeh
- Ali Ahmadzadeh