Opponent (Motståndaren) – Review

Opponent Milad Alami’s second feature length film opens with a stark white screen – enough to make you think you’ve already gone snow blind in the Swedish-Finnish border town in which it is set. There’s a thumping sound, like bodies hitting the floor, before an Audre Lorde quote takes over the startling white-ness: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” We are then introduced to our protagonist by way of a violent, bloody fist-fight followed by panicked breathing and an attempt to hide.

It’s all very high drama and it’s a feeling that Opponent (Motståndaren) never quite loses. Iman (Payman Maadi) and his wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri) find themselves in the very north of Sweden, with their two daughters, in a hotel that has been converted into a refugee holding centre. Through the walls, there are fights laden with the frustration of waiting, forcible removals, screams of despair. Family life is not as they knew it in Tehran. But because of rumours circulating about Iman being critical of the Iranian regime, they find themselves crammed into one room, praying their claim for asylum will be accepted.

What is so striking about this film is the constant sense of movement. Iman and his family are regularly shuffled from room to room to make way for new arrivals. So there is never any sense of permanence in their stacks of dishes or school books or clothing. As Iman joins a local wrestling club – to show community integration – the camerawork follows his breathless determination to put up a good fight. Those waiting to challenge him jump on the spot on the sidelines as the camera swirls around them. His part-time food delivery job sees him on his bike or weaving in and out of drunken crowds. Even when he takes a breather outside in the snow, you get the sense he is warily scanning the horizon for threats. It’s this use of motion that allows you to understand the extreme state of distress Iman seems to be in and why he feels he cannot return home.

Very early on in the film, after a few lingering gazes in the post-wrestling shower block, we get the real sense of why Iman has forced his family to flee. It also establishes him as having no real sense of belonging or home. He is “other” back in Tehran because of allusions to his sexuality; he is “other” in Sweden simply because he was not born there. Displacement, for Iman, is something that he has experienced all of his life.

Payman Maadi does a phenomenal job of exploring these themes. It’s hard to picture another actor looking so physically uneasy for such a long period of time but Maadi manages it. Even when he is supposed to be relaxing with his wife and daughters, you can see an undercurrent of words unspoken ripping through him. He is a man who is begging himself to conform; to love his wife. His daydreams of being a normal, well-to-do family man are heartbreaking. Wrestling is both a dangerous amount of physical touch and a necessary outlet for his not-so-buried rage and loathing. Marall Nasiri, as Maryam, gives an equally brilliant performance. Her eyes seem weary, brimming with both desperation and hope. She, too, wants a normal family life but her dialogue, cut off mid-sentence, and her facial expressions suggest she knows this is beyond reach.

Opponent offers up social commentary on a number of fronts. The refugee experience in Sweden seems bungled and dehumanized. These families or individuals are simply room numbers on a pin-board. They are moved around, spoken to in a language they are not familiar with, and told by a distant voice on a conference call whether or not they are allowed to stay and make a new Opponent life. Dying by suicide rather than be packed off onto a bus and sent home is a very real option for many of the residents. There is also the issue of what it means to be gay in contemporary Iran. Iman is convinced that a return to his homeland will mean arrest at best. His fear is palpable and the threat feels credible. He has to face the Iranian wrestling team at an international competition and the risk of whisper network has him slick with sweat, eyes bulging and pulse throbbing.

Whilst there are a couple of moments where the dialogue runs expectedly flat or a scene lingers for longer than seems necessary, Opponent is an incredibly thorough exploration of tension. Bolstered by Payman Maadi’s high-octane physical and emotional performance, it’s an interesting take on the notion of displacement. A very compelling watch.

Opponent (Motståndaren) is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024.

Mary Munoz
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