Billed as the first feature film to be co-directed by an Iranian and an Israeli filmmaker, “Tatami” goes all in with a lean and tense narrative that is part sport movie, part political thriller — with both parts equally neatly realized. Directed by Guy Nattiv and “Holy Spider” lead actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi (who also stars), from a screenplay by Nattiv and Elham Erfani, the film is set during the Judo World Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia, in which Iranian judo fighter Leila (Arienne Mandi) starts to perform better than anyone except perhaps her coach Maryam (Amir Ebrahimi) expected.
Leila’s success is a problem for the Iranian government since it means that she may go on to face an Israeli fighter in the final. The regime sees it as humiliating for Iran to potentially lose to Israel, so decides to eliminate any possibility of this happening by ordering Leila to either withdraw under a pretext, or deliberately throw a less politically fraught match, before reaching that stage in the contest. This directive initially comes in the form of a terse phone-call with coach Maryam, but as Leila ignores this pressure and progresses further in the tournament, descends to in-person threats against family members back in Iran.
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Nattiv and Amir Ebrahimi do a fantastic job of showcasing how complex situations drawn from issues of social and political justice can power straightforwardly exciting genre cinema. The film works well as a pure sports movie, even without the additional pressure of the heinous situation in which Leila and Maryam find themselves. The genre’s time-honored device of the coach who was once themselves a force to be reckoned with in that particular sport — but who never quite made it — comes into play very naturally, with Amir Ebrahimi doing a terrific job of showing how terribly conflicted the older woman is about her own past choices, and how that feeds into a complex brew of reactions.
Maryam clearly wants the best for the young firecracker whose career prospects she must balance against the very real danger facing both of the women and their loved ones, but there’s legitimate ambiguity around what exactly constitutes their best options. The dilemma around whether or not to pull out of the big final conflict hasn’t been gussied up purely as a suspenseful narrative twist (we’ve all seen sports movies that struggle to make that third-act loss-of-faith moment psychologically plausible), whereas the uncertainty here sits at the heart of major themes around the limits of straightforward heroism when one or two people are set against a system.
Despite its urgent political engagement, “Tatami” never forgets to be a gripping watch. Lensed by DP Todd Martin in black and white, with plenty of kinetic action from a limber, active camera that anticipates and matches the fighters’ movements, these choices help the judo footage land visually as cinema, rather than sports documentary. Match commentary is used effectively to give unfamiliar audiences a low-key tutorial in various judo protocols, and also proves a handy vehicle for some necessary exposition. And why not? Since real-life sports commentary also offers potted precis of relevant biographical information, this proves a handy way to unobtrusively shade in backstory.
A potential breakout beyond the kinds of audiences who might ordinarily support a black-and-white, part-English, part-Farsi drama, “Tatami” could well engage beyond the usual arena for such films, and festival circuit glory seems assured.
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