Critical Zone (2023) Golden Leopard Winner 2023

Wri/Dir: Ali Ahmadzadeh | Iran, Drama, 99′

In this dour social realist drama Amir, a drug runner, chases around the backstreets of Tehran trading his wares and dealing with his clients. But he is just one of the disenchanted characters inhabiting this look at the margins of Iranian society, including his dog who provides Amir with continued emotional support during evenings in their dingy basement apartment. In fact, most of the film unfolds in cover of darkness reflecting the grim reality of modern life in the capital, and Ahmadzadeh’s need to shoot in secret without the authorities’ permission.

Ali Ahmadzadeh continued to face pressure from the Iranian authorities to withdraw his film from the Locarno Film Festival main competition – but screen it did – and went on the win the coveted main prize, The Golden Leopard in this year’s 76th edition of the lakeside festival. No doubt Iran’s security ministry will continue to investigate the writer/director.

Critical Zone is aesthetically inventive and convincingly performed in its depiction of the gruelling lives of Iran’s most oppressed youth and in fact anyone who opposes the draconian regime than bans all kinds of alternative ways of living.

Ahmadzadeh rose to the international stage with his debut Kami’s Party at Berlinale 2013. The following year he made an appearance there with Atomic Heart. Critical Zone is his fourth feature. MT




Bird Island (2019) ***

Dirs: Maya Kosa, Sergio Costa | Doc, 60′

The healing power of nature offers therapy for a young man recovering from cancer in this quietly fascinating second feature by Maya Kosa and Sergio Costa.

Antonin (played by an actor) has retreated to Bird Island’s Ornithological Rehabilitation Centre in Genthod in Geneva where he gradually recuperates by helping injured birds to get back on their own feet before being released into the wild. The docudrama shows how rats bred to feed the birds of prey ironically become predators themselves when several escape into the aviary injuring their feathered friends who are then put down.

A series of slow static camera shots taken from a distance and in intimate close-up combine with a subtle palette of earthy greens and blues and an ambient soundscape make this restful and calming film despite its leisurely pacing. This is also the affect it has on Antonin himself who drifts into a comatose state while watching Paul go about his business which involves killing a rat. At one point Antonin actually falls asleep on one of the work counters, in another he literally falls like a felled tree when walking across a field.

Some scenes may upset those uncomfortable with dissection and animal euthanasia (we watch a bird slowly succumbing to chemical death) and this lends a unsettling touch to this increasingly surreal documentary that drifts into the realms of soulful philosophy in considering our own fragility as humans beings in the context of these delicate yet highly evolved and intelligent creatures. MT




Illumination (1973) Illuminacja | Kinoteka 2015

Director: Krzysztof Zanussi

Script: Krzysztof Zanussi

Cast: Stanislaw Latallo, Malgorzata Pritulak, Monika Dzienisiewicz-Olbrychska, Edward Zebrowski, Jan Skotnicki, Irena Horecka

Poland  1973 87mins Drama

Seminal, groundbreaking work from Zanussi, following on from Struktura Krysztalu, Pretty much every film he made went on to win at some prestigious festival or other and Illumination is no exception, taking down the Grand Prix at Locarno and Best Film at the Polish Film Festival, amongst others.

Illumination is an unapologetically male film and no doubt somewhat autobiographical; Zanussi studied Physics at Warsaw Uni before going on to graduate from that pinnacle of European moving image education Lodz Film Academy in 1966.

Charting the life journey of one Franciszek Retman, played with handsome geeky brilliance by Stanislaw Latallo. Retman a young student aspiring to study Physics at Warsaw Uni, falling in love for the first time, then the burgeoning comprehension of the reality of life in all its complexities as it tumbles along at a speed reserved for those still young enough to believe themselves immortal.

It’s a beautiful film, shot in a brave, new style yet to make its mark on the rest of the world, but emulated by film students the world over ever since, which is why it may feel so familiar stylistically to viewers now. But it is also alot more than that, covering as it does all the way back in 1973 the very contentious subject of Electric Shock Therapy (or ECT), then combining this with the efforts of one man to find himself and a sense of peace in the chaos that is Existence.

Fine, unfussy but atmospheric cinematography from Edward Klosinski and a terrific score from the prolific talent that is Wojciech Kilar, composer of over 160 scores, including Death & The Maiden, Ninth Gate and The Pianist for Polanski.

This has cinema vérité meeting heavily stylised elements head on, cartwheeling forwards with a breathless kinetic all of its own, reflecting the energy of the protagonist as much as his story. When Illumination first came out, it was heady, revolutionary stuff, the impact of which we really haven’t witnessed since.

A treat then that through the Polish Cinema Classics strand, this Kinoteka film festival is giving us a rare chance to rediscover what made Lodz Film Academy the choice of film school for generations of filmmakers.

What appears to be at first a dense impenetrable tome in the end reveals itself to be a simple, very eloquent and poetic piece. Don’t miss. A Rajan


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