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BERLINALE 2023 Panorama

Review: Opponent

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- BERLINALE 2023: In his follow-up to The Charmer, Milad Alami immerses us in the uncertain and ambiguous world of an Iranian wrestler who is now a refugee in Sweden with his family

Review: Opponent
Payman Maadi in Opponent

Iranian-born, Swedish-based director Milad Alami follows up on his 2018 festival hit The Charmer [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ardalan Esmaili
interview: Milad Alami
film profile
]
with another film dealing with masculinity and violence. But these are just two of the most obvious aspects of Opponent [+see also:
trailer
interview: Milad Alami
film profile
]
, which has just world-premiered in the Berlinale's Panorama. The more intriguing themes in this picture often remain ambiguous, keeping the viewer on their toes as they explore the world of the main character, carried with intensity and nuance by A Separation's Payman Maadi.

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sunnysideofthedoc_register_2024_innerMai

After a teammate starts an undefined rumour about wrestler Iman – the result of which we see in the tense, violent opening sequence – he is forced to flee Iran and ends up in a refugee centre in a small Swedish town near the Finnish border with his wife, Maryam (Marall Nasiri), and daughters Asal (Nicole Mehrbod) and Sahar (Diane Farzami). As they wait for the decision on their asylum application, they struggle with the red tape with assistance from the tragic character, fellow refugee and translator Abbas (Ardalan Esmaili).

Iman delivers pizzas to make some kind of a living, and when he learns that Asal is pregnant, he decides to join a local wresting club. Theoretically, this might help with their asylum prospects if there is a chance for this former Iranian champion to join the Swedish team. This creates tension with Maryam, the reasons for which remain undisclosed, but apparently he had made a promise in the past.

At the training sessions, Iman is struggling with his stamina. He looks to be in his early forties – when the coach asks him how old he is, he responds, "Young enough." He befriends Thomas (Björn Elgerd), who recognises that he had competed in the Rio Olympics, but soon, the young Swede will get a tad too close to his new teammate.

Wrestling, besides being the Iranian national sport, obviously comes with some inherent homoerotic territory, the fight scenes filmed very kinetically and viscerally. But like most things about Iman, this aspect remains undefined – maybe he just wants to use it as a supporting element for his claim that his life would be in danger in Iran; maybe he does have homosexual tendencies that he refuses to acknowledge.

But Alami does not present this as a key dilemma of the film; rather, it is just a part of what makes Iman so enigmatic. The charismatic Maadi plays him as a man who is always tense and on the lookout for threats, carrying around many unresolved internal issues. His relationship with his wife, even if we do not doubt his dedication to his family, is fraught, feeling like too much between them has been left unspoken. This is probably the reason why their interactions at times do not seem fully developed and can have a frustrating effect on the viewer.

For his characters, the world that Alami has plunged them into is shaky, alien and full of contrasts. Snowy landscapes captured by Sebastian Winterø are counterpointed by the darkness that envelops the refugee centre as the power regularly goes out, our heroes now literally lost in the dark. The DoP's wide-lens cinematography, when applied to interiors, produces shots that are blurry around the edges, which has an unnerving effect, particularly in the scenes of interviews for the asylum application. Meanwhile, the superficial calm of small-town Sweden is offset by the howling of a wolf in the distance, implying that, for Iman, there is no respite from the inner tension and outside pressure.

Opponent is a co-production between Sweden's Tangy and Filmpool Nord, and Norway's Ape & Bjørn, in collaboration with Film i Västerbotten and Danmarks Radio. Indie Sales has the international rights.

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