Cannes 2022 review: Leila’s Brothers (Saeed Roustaee)

“Like the thousand-page Russian novels from the 19th century, Leila’s Brothers tells all the tragedies and the violence of the world through the lives of one family.”

Among the many lengthy films presented in this year’s Cannes competition, Leila’s Brothers is the longest with a 165-minute runtime, yet fully motivated by the substantial number of incidents occurring and people involved in these. In addition to the lead character and her four brothers named in the film’s title, there are also her father, her mother, a whole bunch of distant cousins forming the family clan, and in the background the entirety of Iran, which is as much a protagonist of the story as it already was in Roustaee’s previous film Just 6.5. Leila’s Brothers turns out to be quite different in tone, trading the gripping thriller genre of its predecessor for a family saga, which may start hesitantly but ends stunningly, reaching the same heights as major works like The Godfather (referenced through moments such as a gargantuan wedding celebration, or the silent death which puts an end to the story) and Succession (hatred and grudges over money as the two most potent family ties).

Near the end of Just 6.5 its main antagonist, a drug lord who has just been sentenced to death, states that he does not regret anything as his crimes allowed him and his family to escape their pathetic existence, all crammed up in a decrepit house located at the end of a narrow alley. Leila’s Brothers is to some extent a variation on this same theme (a sentiment reinforced by the fact that the two movies share a lot of their main actors), as the house Leila and her family all live in fits this description, and Leila’s obsession is to find them a way to lead a better life. Leila’s plan is to round up all the financial savings of the siblings and use it to buy a shop in a mall which would guarantee them a steady source of income. The only trouble is that their father, Heshmat, has a drastically different aspiration with regards to how to spend the family’s money. For him it is a way to accomplish at last his long-sought and delusional dream of becoming the patriarch of the extended family clan, even though his cousins have always been awful and dismissive of him and his children.

Every character around them has a space to exist in, but Leila and her father are the two tremendous forces of the story, two titans whose fight could last until the end of time, in the intimacy of the family as well as on a greater scale. Heshmat embodies, to the point of compulsive madness, the perpetuation of Iran’s ancestral traditions which ensure that patriarchy, clan system and autocratic rule remain in place; while Leila stands for the will to overturn all these conceptions in favour of a more democratic approach in which the voice of women is heard and matters. The struggle between order and revolution ignites all the scenes of Leila’s Brothers, which are brought to their boiling point by the fierce writing, staging and directing of Roustaee, and turned into battlefronts consumed one after the other by the ongoing internal war. Throughout the movie Roustaee manages to maintain a balance between fury of the moment and clarity of the whole, theatricality and truthfulness, the apparent exhaustion of the narrative material (the quantity of twists added one after the other to the plot could be outrageous if they were not put to such a good use) and the sheer magnitude of the human and political study. Like the thousand-page Russian novels from the 19th century, Leila’s Brothers tells all the tragedies and the violence of the world through the lives of one family.