An Iranian refugee in Sweden struggles to hide his true identity in Milad Alami’s attention-grabbing second feature


Source: Berlin International Film Festival


Dir/scr: Milad Alami. Sweden/Norway. 2023. 119mins

You can run but you can’t hide in Opponent. The second feature from writer/director Milad Alami is a taut, timely tale of an Iranian refugee in Sweden which reflects much wider issues around freedom and tolerance. It’s a film that grabs your attention from the first moments, as officials call at a Tehran sports centre seeking to interview professional wrestler Iman (Payman Maadi). Iman, however, has already slipped out of a back door and is running for his life. When stopped, he shows the violence that can be unleashed by a desparate man.

A taut, timely tale of an Iranian refugee in Sweden which reflects much wider issues around freedom and tolerance

Alami won a host of festival awards for his 2017 feature debut The Charmer, and this follow-up won the main prize in Les Arc Film Festival’s Work In Progress sidebar in 2021. An anguished central performance from Maadi should attract further festival interest and more for Alami’s approachable, emotionally involving drama that is set for a Swedish theatrical release on March 31st following a world premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section

The film’s thriller-like opening sequence is followed by a move to a remote corner of north Sweden, and a hotel that serves as a refugee centre. This is now home for Iman, his pregnant wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri) and their daughters Asal (Nicole Mehrbod) and Sahar (Diane Farzami) – Iman is delivering pizzas for a living and waiting for news of their asylum application. The film immerses itself in the daily details of life in a foreign country, from the reliance on a translator for communication to the sacrifices of Maryam, formerly a music student and piano teacher now a resourceful, careworn homemaker.

Secondary characters add little vignettes of suffering and frustration to the bigger picture, particularly the story of translator Abbas (Ardalan Esmali). And Alami uses a picture gallery to put human faces to the many refugees who, like Iman and his family, find themselves at the Swedish centre. Elsewhere, cinematographer Sebastian Wintero captures striking images of the bleak, snow-covered wastelands – the country looks like a blank canvas and perhaps that is what Iman needs to start over. The cry of a wolf in the wild, however, suggests it is a landscape filled with dangers.

The fact that Iman and his family are outrunning a different danger is fairly obvious. He has been confronted by rumours and gossip. We see the abandoned family home, silent and empty with fruit rotting in bowls. Iman receives a series of phonecalls. There is a sense of something unresolved in his haunted, agitated look. 

More is revealed as Iman decides to support his asylum application by resuming his wrestling career, with a view to competing for Sweden. In the forced intimacy of the changing rooms and communal showers, Iman is a man fearful of betraying himself. He dare not let his gaze linger too long, flinches from contact in a sport dependent  on grabbing, holding and touch. His problems become all the more acute when teammate Thomas (Bjorn Elgerd) shows an interest in him. Maadi’s performance conveys a sense of a man divided, torn between his desires and the ties that bind him to his family. There is a suppressed rage in him, and no clear sense of what doing the right thing might be. He is welcomed by Thomas and his friends and given a glimpse of freer world in which he cannot belong.

Opponent gives us a sense of Iman as someone selfish, bringing unhappiness to those around him. Does he only need his family to keep up appearances? Yet it also provides a sense of balance in Maryam’s perspective. Marall Nasiri plays her as someone only too aware of what is happening around her – Maryam has a similar dilemma of wanting the family to be together but knowing that Iman is not fully present in their lives.

To his credit, Alami doesn’t provide easy solutions or happy endings. He offers something rather more complex, and leaves us to ponder whether things will be any different for the next generation.

Production company: Tangy 

International sales: Indie Sales

Producer: Annika Tamba Rogell 

Cinematography: Sebastian Wintero

Production design: Thomas Oyjordsbakken

Editing: Olivia Neergaard-Holm

Music: Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag

Main cast: Payman Maadi, Marall Nasiri, Bjorn Elgerd, Nicole Mehrbod, Bjorn Elgerd, Diana Farzami