Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It’s a tremendously challenging role, in which Maadi excels." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

There’s a lone wolf out there in the mountains, somewhere near the Finnish border. In an early scene we see him walking through the snow, faint brown stains in the fur around his mouth evidence of a recent kill. From the hotel car park where the asylum seekers gather, we can hear him howl. Somebody will hunt him down and kill him soon, Iman (Payman Maadi) is told.

In the interviews the state interrogators ask “Why don’t you want to go back to your own country?” and, of course, most asylum seekers want that very much. Iman and his wife, Maryam (Marall Nasiri), are exhausted by being moved around, asked now to shift their belongings into yet another room to make way for a fresh wave of displaced people. They have two daughters and a new baby on the way. Iman is trying to make a bit of money by delivering pizza; the kids are sick of eating it. Maryam has only limited opportunities to use her skills as a musician and piano teacher. She misses their students and the home they had to leave with no time to say goodbye.

From the start, it’s clear that all is not well in their relationship, but it’s difficult to know how much this is a result of the stress they’re under and how much it stems from earlier problems. There are obvious holes in the story they tell to the authorities about Iman being reported to the authorities by a man trying to clear his own name. Iman has flashbacks to a scene we have glimpsed in a prologue, and it’s clear that he’s struggling with guilt. He’s emotionally distant from Maryam. At night, he slips away and has emotionally charged phone conversations which he refuses to acknowledge.

Things become a little clearer when Iman’s background as a professional wrestler is revealed and he asks if it could make a difference if he wrestled for Sweden. His advocate isn’t sure but they figure it’s worth a try, and he goes into training. Despite years away from the sport, he picks it up again well, more than willing to put his body through the necessary pain. It provides a welcome outlet for his stress. But after the matches, in the showers, the glances he exchanges with teammate Thomas (Björn Elgerd), and the inescapable intimacy of massage and muscle manipulation, point to something else.

For someone in Iman’s situation, there can be no simple solution. In the interview cubicles, where the staff are so overwhelmed that they have long since lost the ability to connect with the asylum seekers as human beings, we get a horrific glimpse of the extremes to which some people will go when faced with the prospect of being returned to their countries of origin. Iman, however, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. Although it might seem as if life in Sweden would be a much better fit for him, he still longs to be a devoted husband and father.

There is no room here for the kind of cheerfully liberatory Western narrative in which those feelings fade. It’s a tremendously challenging role, in which Maadi excels. He’s perfectly complemented by the more understated but equally powerful Nasiri. Framed by external crises, it is nevertheless a very introspective film, rooted in the compromised and yet abiding love between the central characters. Alami has a keen eye and perfectly balances formal and informal visual devices. In one scene, refugee families are seen in sequence, centre-frame and facing forward, posing for official portraits. In another, the younger ones engage in an informal football match. “Muslims against Christians!” someone shouts, and it’s nothing more than a friendly way to organise the game, and we get a glimpse of what all of life could be.

Opponent screened as part of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2024
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Opponent packshot
Iman, an Iranian, lives with his family in Sweden in an ever-changing succession of refugee hostels. To increase his chances of obtaining residence permits for them all, he resumes his career as a wrestler – and is confronted with the reason he had to flee.

Director: Milad Alami

Writer: Milad Alami

Starring: Payman Maadi, Marall Nasiri, Björn Elgerd, Ardalan Esmaili, Arvin Kananian

Year: 2023

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden

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