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LOCARNO 2023 Competition

Review: Critical Zone


- Ali Ahmadzadeh’s third film defies Iran’s authoritarian regime, painting the portrait of a tired and unpredictable society which now believes in nothing but artificial paradises

Review: Critical Zone
Shirin Abedinirad in Critical Zone

Critical Zone [+see also:
film profile
, the third feature by Iranian director Ali Ahmadzadeh, follows in the footsteps of its predecessors - Kami’s Party (presented in a world premiere in the 2013 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival) and Atomic Heart (selected in the Berlinale’s 2015 Focus section) – plumbing the depths of a far more complex version of Tehran than the political and religious authorities governing the country would have us believe. We’re guided through the labyrinth of this disillusioned, underground society by Amir (Amir Pousti), a drug dealer with a messianic air who navigates the city streets guided by the firm yet gentle voice of his GPS to confront those who no longer believe in anything other than drug fumes.

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Falling somewhere between The Big Lebowski and A Clockwork Orange, Critical Zone - which is in the running for the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival - depicts the torments of those who no longer believe - but are unable to admit it out loud - in what’s around them, whether politics, religion or the moral leadership which seeks to suffocate people’s innermost instincts and desires.

As underlined by the director himself, the film is populated by real people (the various passengers/clients whom Amir welcomes into his car or whom he meets in the black of night): regular users, a flight attendant-come-smuggler returning from a trip abroad, a conservative-minded mother who’s trying to save her cut-adrift, drug-addicted son, a group of devoted transexual sex workers whom the director films in a documentarian and experimental fashion, at times verging on psychedelic. “Shooting this film was an act of rebellion. The fact that people will see it is an even bigger victory for us”, explains the director whose films have been banned in his country by the regime. Filmed without a permit, using hidden cameras and constantly trying to bypass restrictions which proved valuable opportunities to experiment with new filmmaking approaches, Critical Zone looks to reveal, directly and instinctively, what simmers beneath the surface of an oppressed society which is rebelling as best it can, in the darkness of night, against rules which are now devoid of meaning.

In this sense, for his followers, Amir becomes something far more indispensable than a simple drug dealer. His presence, silent but strong, dazed but benevolent, becomes essential for the errant souls of Tehran. The surreal, parallel universe he creates with his “magic potions”, but also with his hypnotically comforting words, releases those who experience it - even if only for a night - from the oppressive censorship around them. Ultimately, Critical Zone lends a voice to a new generation who are trying to live their lives, despite it all.

Albeit in a dazed way, falling somewhere between road movie, performance and lysergic trip, Critical Zone opens a window onto a reality jealously kept under wraps. We’re introduced to the genuine adventures experienced by Amir, but the film also branches off in countless other directions, exploring the casual relationship between (strong) men and women, gender fluidity as embodied by Amir himself and the need for tenderness which pervades everything.

Viewers will need to fully surrender themselves in order to fully understand this film, and allow themselves to be guided by the seductive voice of Amir’s GPS without knowing where they’re headed. Because sometimes, not understanding everything is key to uncovering some surprising realities.

Critical Zone was produced by Germany’s Counter Intuitive Film and is sold worldwide by Luxbox.

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(Translated from Italian)

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