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‘Opponent’ (‘Motstandaren’) Review: Payman Maadi Brings Searing Intensity to Character Study of an Iranian Refugee in Sweden



Milad Alami’s Opponent begins with an Audre Lorde quote: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” The Black lesbian poet wrote eloquently about the violence of silence, arguing that breaking through silence and speaking out is a radical act, as essential to self-knowledge as it is to communication. The protagonist of this tightly knotted drama — played in a knockout performance by Payman Maadi, churning with rage, desire and pained vulnerability — is imprisoned by his silence, literally wrestling with himself, to use the metaphor that gives the film its bristling vitality.

Maadi plays Iman, who fled Tehran with his family and is seeking asylum in the far north of Sweden. The reasons for that abrupt flight are revealed only later, but there are clues in a prologue that starts effectively with a blank screen and the sounds of body slams and grunts of wrestlers training hard in a gym. The police are heard asking to question Iman, and the first image we see is of him running in terror away from the complex. When another wrestler spots him and attempts to alert the agents, Iman chases him down and savagely pummels him until he’s unconscious.


The Bottom Line

A heat source in a snowbound landscape.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Cast: Payman Maadi, Marall Nasiri, Björn Elgerd, Ardalan Esmaili, Nicole Mehrbod, Diana Farzami, Arvin Kananian
Director-screenwriter: Milad Alami

1 hour 59 minutes

It’s a startling opening that immediately seizes your attention in a vise-like grip that continues as the scene shifts to the snowbound Swedish landscape. The portentous drums of Jon Ekstrand and Carl-Johan Sevedag’s score suggest that violence will follow Iman to his new home. That impression is compounded when a lone wolf lopes into the frame, the blood on its snout indicating a recent kill.

Iman works delivering pizzas on a snowmobile. He lives with his wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri) and their daughters, Asal (Nicole Mehrbod) and Sahar (Diana Farzami), in a single room in temporary refugee housing, constantly being shuffled from one place to the next with each new intake. Alami gives faces to those individuals and families being processed through the system by lingering over a series of portrait shots, ending with Iman and his family.

With admirable economy, the writer-director shows the bureaucratic indifference refugees face on a daily basis, often considered more like numbers than people. The distressing sight of families being removed for repatriation underscores the limbo status of many.

Having been turned down in their initial application for asylum, Iman and Maryam are stuck in a lengthy appeals process, hoping that Maryam being pregnant with a third child will count in their favor. A translator friend from the refugee center, Abbas (Ardalan Esmaili), suggests their chances might be improved if Iman returned to wrestling and competed for Sweden, reapplying for asylum as a professional sportsman. Maryam is vehemently opposed, but when he takes her to the training facility to watch him try out, she seems already resigned to the fact that her increasingly distant husband will ignore her wishes.

At several points during the film, we watch Maryam watching, studying the situation intently. The wounded dignity of Nasiri’s nuanced performance reveals her to be a perceptive woman who misses nothing. Exactly what her penetrating gaze sees will become clearer as Iman settles back into the very physical world of wrestling.

That world, while it might be considered a somewhat blunt metaphor, provides Alami with dynamic punctuation in pithy training and competition scenes that bring Opponent‘s observations on masculinity, intimacy and sexual repression into stark focus. Sebastian Winterø’s agile camerawork and Olivia Neergaard-Holm’s punchy editing maximize the visceral impact.

In the locker room and shower scenes that follow, we see Iman’s furtive glances and his fear of exposure, particularly after Swedish teammate Thomas (Björn Elgerd) has progressed from welcoming friendship and warmth to undisguised sexual interest. In a performance of mesmerizing intensity, Maadi does some of his best work in these interludes, as anxiety, yearning and anger collide inside him, at times sparking sudden bursts of violence.

It’s no surprise that these scenes also point to the real reason the family had to leave Tehran, just as the frequent, initially unidentified calls on Iman’s cellphone reveal his conflicted feelings of regret and bitterness over what happened there.

Throughout the film, Alami and Maadi deftly show the push and pull within Iman as he relaxes into unfamiliar freedoms — notably at a party with Thomas and the other team members, where he smokes a joint and loses himself on the dance floor — and retreats into stony silence at home, where he’s bound by an increasingly constricting sense of duty. At times, Iman is curt to the point of hostility with Maryam and we can see how this hurts him as much as her. The interplay between Maadi and the excellent Nasiri in these scenes is steeped in melancholy.

Iman’s past catches up with him in a vicious way at a training camp where Swedish wrestlers go up against the Iranian national team. But he proves resilient; the bulked up Maadi shows Iman’s refusal to be subdued, as his internal conflicts reach boiling point.

Alami’s script hits an occasional false note, arguably pushing too hard for an operatic crescendo in the saddening outcome of Abbas’ protracted asylum appeal and turning simplistic with a fantasy moment in which Iman imagines his problems melting away into familial harmony. All the warring forces of hope and despair, fear and fury, isolation and liberation can be gleaned from Maadi’s astonishing performance; they don’t need to be spelled out in the writing.

The broodingly charismatic Iranian American actor is best known for his work in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winner, A Separationand for the flawed but compelling US indie, Camp X-Ray, starring opposite Kristen Stewart. His electric presence at the center of every scene Opponent hammers home how ridiculously overdue Maadi is for wider recognition among the world’s most exceptional actors. His character is such a tough, taciturn man that the window he opens up to the well of burdened feeling he carries inside him is devastating.

Iranian émigré Alami, who grew up in Sweden but studied and lives in Denmark, demonstrates exacting control in his second feature (following 2018’s well-received The Charmer). His insights into daily life in the refugee milieu are graced with compassion and his incorporation of great frozen expanses of wilderness as a backdrop is hauntingly atmospheric. Likewise, his skilled use of Ekstrand and Sevedag’s wide-ranging score to enhance the drama’s supple mood changes.

Like another recent film from Scandinavia, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, this is a distinctive refugee drama that finds power in the personal. It demands to be seen for Maadi’s performance alone.

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