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SIFF 2024 Review: Critical Zone Is of Interest

Posted by May 18th, 2024 No Comments »

Critical Zone (2024)
Directed by Ali Ahmadzadeh
Starring Amir Pousti, Shirin Abedinirad, Alireza Keymanesh

I am an American, or more succinctly, a citizen of the United States of America. What if I wanted to travel to Tehran, Iran? According to the State Department:

“U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to Iran, but the U.S. Department of State currently recommends against it. The State Department’s travel advisory for Iran is Level 4, which means ‘do not travel.’ The advisory is due to the following reasons: terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest of U.S. citizens, and wrongful detentions.”

The next best thing to traveling to Tehran has got to be the neorealism vision of director Ali Ahmadzadeh. Critical Zone is interesting in that it straddles two types of cinematic languages. One in the tradition of Italian neorealism, being set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, with non-professional actors. The other is a new, intriguing camera style that disorients and plays up the messy nature of what it is to be human. This mixture of Vittorio De Sica (Sciuscià and Bicycle Thieves) and Gaspar Noé (Irréversible and Enter the Void) makes this third feature film from Ahmadzadeh riveting and frustratingly beautiful.

The amazing sound design, especially the cavernous reverb used sparingly both in crucial or possibly ambiguous lines of dialogue, coughs, and moans, makes this film all the more discombobulating. The anxiety that built in me as I watched Amir deliver hashish, marijuana, and more to the citizens of Iran’s largest city was addicting. Much like the Safdie Brothers’ film Uncut Gems (2019), the more bizarrely tense situations get for our lead, the more I, as the viewer, anticipated disaster.

Amir, played by a non-actor of the same name, is one of the most stoically charismatic drug dealers ever portrayed on film. Similar to Tarantino’s Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) in charm but without the Hollywood sheen. We see him hawk loogies, pick his nose, and allow his dog to hump his leg to completion. None of this matters to Amir; unlike John Travolta, he doesn’t act like someone is watching. Each and every person Amir meets in the city as he drives and makes quick stops is interesting. I lamented the story moving on numerous times, but the inertia of Amir and his job didn’t care about my wish for backstories and resolutions. There are none, and as the film built towards what I thought was its climax, I was thankful for the lack of exposition.

Speaking of climax, this film has one of the best orgasms captured on film, fake or not. (Take that, Sally Albright, because a certain flight attendant has taken the title from you!) After this orgasm and a car chase that leans into magical realism, I did that thing I do: wish for the film to nail the ending as I pump my fist, much to the chagrin of fellow filmgoers around me. My wish did not come true. Another final scene let the air out of the anxiety balloon and returned us to the humanity of Amir and the people he deals drugs to. At the time, I thought this was a misstep, but upon further reflection, this is the perfect way to end a frenetic film such as this—with the stillness of empathy.

This film will be released June 6, 2024, in the U.S. For any fans of neorealism, Gaspar Noé, or even just being allowed to be in a country that the State Department says you shouldn’t, please see it in the theater. The sights, and even more so the sounds, will have you spinning.

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