Opponent review – Iranian wrestling champ’s complex battle for asylum

Estimated read time 2 min read

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher from 2015 and Sean Durkin’s recent The Iron Claw show the sport of wrestling as deeply dysfunctional; wrestling fans might wonder if their favourite pastime is ever going to be depicted in the movies as vital and dramatic, like football, or even tragically noble and masculine, like boxing. Well … not in this film.

Motståndaran, or Opponent, is a tense, complex drama from Iranian-born and Denmark-based director Milad Alami, drawing on some of his own experiences as a refugee in northern Sweden. Payman Maadi (from Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation) plays Imam, a grizzled Iranian wrestling champ seeking asylum in Sweden with his pregnant wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri) and their two young daughters. He and his family left behind a good, prosperous life in Tehran, where Maryam was a distinguished musician, and now they endure the humiliation of living in prison-like hostels.

So why did they have to leave in such a hurry? Imam tells the Swedish authorities it was because a spiteful competitor had falsely denounced him as an anti-government agitator; this is the story he’s sticking to, with Maryam grimly cooperative. But the opening scene in Iran and various oblique touches make it clear that this isn’t true; Imam was indeed denounced, but for something else, something arguably even more serious. Things become complicated when Imam bolsters his asylum claim by volunteering for the Swedish international wrestling team, and has to face his former teammates in competition – and more complicated still when it dawns on Imam that in Sweden, with its liberal sexual politics, it might help his asylum claim to change his story to the truth. But this risks humiliating Maryam.

Opponent is a film about codes of masculinity and loyalty, in which the “opponent” is your home country, your supposed adoptive country, even your spouse. It is composed sometimes in a kind of docu-realist way, with static portrait tableaux showing refugees’ lives – but sometimes also veers into an odd kind of fantasy mode in which the family imagine the good European life they’ll have when their claim is accepted. There are some bumpy plot points, but at all events, Maadi himself brings a fierce and muscular intelligence to the part.

Source: theguardian.com

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