Locarno’s controversial Golden Leopard winner takes a trip through Tehran’s night-time underbelly

Critical Zone

Source: Locarno Film Festival

‘Critical Zone’

Dir/scr: Ali Ahmadzadeh. Iran/Germany. 2023. 99mins

Renegade Iranian writer-director Ali Ahmadzadeh’s third feature Critical Zone, winner of the Golden Leopard at Locarno, chronicles one busy, probably typical night in the life of Tehran’s nicest drug dealer Amir (Amir Pousti), displaying intermittent flashes of flair but quickly succumbing to stylistic overload. The colourful back-story regarding the German-Iranian co-production’s underground genesis and controversial Locarno participation should prove a considerable boost to future prospects. In the days before Locarno began, news broke that Iranian authorities were exerting severe pressure on Ahmadzadeh, his co-producer Sina Ataeian Dena and the festival bosses to withdraw the picture as it was made without official permission.

The film benefits hugely from the unifying presence of artist Pousti 

And no wonder. The clandestinely-shot vision of modern-day Iran presented here is in defiantly diametric opposition to that desired by the theocratic powers-that-be: copious use of narcotics, alcohol, unveiled women enjoying their sexuality, and so on. Ahmadzadeh was ultimately prevented from travelling to Switzerland; Berlin-based Ataeian Dena collected the award on his behalf.

An episodic string of very uneven vignettes, the film benefits hugely from the unifying presence of artist Pousti a non-pro, like the rest of the uneven cast who dominates nearly every scene with a genial, subdued intensity as the thirtysomething, bear-like Mr Amir. Amir operates as a kind of secular saint, calmly dispensing help, wisdom and practical care to his eclectic range of regular clients. Evidently a highly organised fellow despite his shambling appearance and outlaw lifestyle, Amir struggles to maintain satisfactory relationships with members of the opposite sex. This is perhaps because of fundamental immaturity amusingly underlined when at one point he is implicitly compared with a five-year-old boy who has gone missing.

Amir’s closest bond is with Mr Fred, his slaveringly affectionate bulldog glimpsed in domestic interludes. Their first scene in Amir’s flat comes straight after an attention-grabbingly confident, wordless six-minute prologue. This takes place in the extensive highway-tunnels which provided a crucial backdrop for Ahmadzadeh’s previous outing Atom Heart Mother (20150; another provocative immersion into the alluring but hazardous nightworld of the Iranian capital. 

Critical Zone is on safest ground when accompanying Amir on the move in his car, which also serves as his main business location, Ahmadzadeh overtly paying homage to previous Iranian antecedents such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. The writer-director’s instincts seem more mixed between artistic and conventional paths, however. His use of Milad Movahedi’s score which incorporates incongruous orchestral stylings and even some hackneyed sad-piano sits uneasily alongside his more auteuristic directorial flourishes.

The more determinedly offbeat Critical Zone strives to be, the rockier its impact. The strained nadir comes in a lengthy sequence just after the halfway mark. Amir drives an young female client who is emigrating to the airport, and then takes a glamorous cabin-crew member (who supplements her income via drug-mule activities) back to the city centre. A near-miss encounter with representatives of authority pushes the air stewardess, tripping high as a kite, into a freakout state of screeching temporary insanity.

Ahmadzadeh, serving as his own editor, derails his own film with this overlong excess, and never quite manages to get back on track. The sonic onslaught delivered here is just one part of a sound-design by Hasan Mahdavi that does a lot of heavy lifting throughout: most of the dialogue carries a slight echo effect that rapidly becomes distracting.

Some of the creative gambits deployed in the soundtrack do pay off. There is the ominously repetitive high-pitched pinging used in the prologue and again later, plus the oddly intimate and soothing tones of Amir’s smartphone GPS app (his most reliable companion). This mature-sounding female voice unflappably caresses his frazzled ears with quasi-maternal affection, and reliably steers him in the right direction.

Production company: Counter Intuitive Film

International sales: Luxbox info@luxboxfilms.com

Producers: Sina Ataeian Dena, Ali Ahmadzadeh

Cinematography: Abbas Rahimi

Editing: Ashkan Mehri

Music: Milad Movahedi

Main cast: Amir Pousti, Shirin Abedinirad, Alireza Keymanesh, Maryam Sadeghiyan, Saghar Saharzik, Mina Hasanlou, Saba Bagheri, Alireza Rastjou, Maman Pari