Amir (Amir Pousti) picks his stash from the back of an ambulance inside a quiet tunnel. He then drives on, delivering various substances to people of all walks of life and both genders, living all over the Iranian capital. Amir is a 30-something, heavily-beaded, lonely male with sad eyes. His physique suggests a fortress of masculinity, his demeanour reveals a far more delicate and sensitive human being. His sole reliable companion is a small bulldog called Mr Fred. He begs a woman with whom he once had a relationship for affection: “just cuddle me overnight and go with any man you want during the day”, he tells her, before confessing that he is sexually impotent.
The life of our protagonist is mostly rudderless, the female voice on his GPS providing the most reliable guidance. “Turn left”, “turn right”, “beware of police ahead”, these are instructions that he can trust. Most of Critical Zone takes place inside Amir’s moving vehicle, both with the driver on his own and also in the company of his clients. The camera captures him from a variety of angles, emphasising a certain sense of imprisonment. Amir does find some sort of connection to his clients, and the conversations seem to offer him a little solace. These interactions are perhaps a subtle nod to Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), a quintessential Iranian movie about a taxi driver bonding with her customers (including some very transgressive characters) on the streets of Tehran.
Despite his vulnerabilities, Amir’s clients perceive him as some sort of father, doctor, or liberator. He delivers pleasure and healing to those afflicted by the various malaises of the body and of the mind. “I have faith in you, then in God”, one of his female clients tell him, before entrusting her son to the care of the substance dealer. He transports a dope-smoking, blue-haired woman to the airport so that she can finally break away from the deeply oppressive society that keeps her shackled. In the film’s climax, he bonds so intensively with one of his clients, that they begin to scream and roar ecstatically inside the moving vehicle. She eventually sticks the upper half of her body through the car’s sunroof without a hijab and continues to howl (pictured at the top of this review). Beyond cathartic.
Critical Zone is one of the most subversive Iranian films made in the past 45 years, at least from a social and cultural perspective. The film includes very graphic drug-taking (hash, weed and cocaine), corruption, adultery, promiscuity, the desire to escape to the US, a female character without a hijab, and even a woman uttering orgasmic moans loud and clear for everyone for hear. These depictions are a profound taboo in Iran, and artists are routinely imprisoned for much lighter offences. Ali Ahmadzadeh is a very audacious filmmaker, I just hope that he does not meet the unfortunate fate of so many others. Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider (2022) dealt with the topic of prostitution and featured several women without a hijab, however – despite being set in Iran – the film was entirely filmed in neighbouring Jordan.
The narrative of Critical Zone is a very loose. The many fragmented stories are put together in order to create a cubist piece (ie. broken down and rearranged in abstract form). Dizzying camera effects and spinning lights create a sense of disorientation, emulating and perhaps even celebrating the effects of the narcotics (this is not a moralistic anti-drug movie). We hear fragments of poetry, some presumably written by Forugh Farrokhzad (the influential Iranian poet and film director is briefly mentioned in the film). The voices of the characters are often disembodied, or even in voice-of-God format, adding the final touch of eeriness to the story.
Ali Ahmadzadeh’s fourth feature film is indeed very “critical”, in both senses of the word. Firstly, “critical” suggests precariousness. These are people living a risky and unstable life on the margins of Iranian society. Secondly, it denotes some sort of denunciation. This is a movie that sets out to criticise Iran’s sanctimonious attitude towards its citizens. Not everyone is able to live a life as righteous as the government expects.
Critical Zone premiered in the Concorso Internazionale of the 76th Locarno Film Festival. It won the Golden Leopard, the event’s highest acollade.