Locarno 2023 review: Critical Zone (Ali Ahmadzadeh)

“Though by nature episodic, Critical Zone is a long trip through a society that has to find a new compass, because the institutions that fulfilled that role are broken.”

Oppressive regimes often lead to political cinema, and if there is one country that is an example of that it’s Iran. The likes of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are well-known for their harsh, subversive criticism of those in power in the country, to the point of being banned from filmmaking. Their films, however, do not really show Iran’s younger generation that suffers under theocratic rule, whose way of living is in direct opposition to the way the system wants them to live. The protests last year after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, killed in police custody after being arrested for improperly wearing her hijab, showed many young Iranians, women and men, outraged at yet another act of oppression. But in film they are rarely shown, in part because the Islamic censorship doesn’t allow films depicting their way of life to be seen. So it is up to adventurous festivals like Locarno to screen those films, if they can get their hands on them. Ali Ahmadzadeh’s film Critical Zone, showing in the main Competition section, breaks just about every censorship rule in the book to show a side of Iran the West seldom sees.

Amir (Amir Pousti) is a drug dealer who roams the streets of Tehran at night supplying his customers, but he is so much more to them than just their pusher: a confidant, a shoulder to cry on, a soulmate, a healer. Living alone with his horny bulldog Mr. Fred after his girlfriend moved out, his nightly endeavours lead him to where his GPS guides him, to the strangest of places, meeting a wide variety of young people (and some older) looking for a fix, from transgendered prostitutes to flight attendants who moonlight as drug mules. He helps them all as best he can, until dawn breaks and he has to return like a vampire to his apartment. He is a creature of the night, the king of the underground, but unlike a vampire he doesn’t suck his victims dry; he invigorates them.

Just by what Ahmadzadeh shows on screen, Critical Zone had to be filmed clandestinely. A lot of the people shown in the film are non-actors and it’s very much an underground film, although technically it looks great and you wouldn’t be able to tell without its backstory. Armed with just three lenses, minimal lighting, and a lot of creativity, Ahmadzadeh has created a number of miniature portraits of a society, or at least a segment of it, that no longer has trust in higher powers, whether it be the government that oppresses them or the god that has seemingly abandoned them. “First I trust in you, then in God,” a woman tells Amir; he very much fulfils the role of charismatic talisman.

There is an element of surrealism to Critical Zone, and part of that comes from Ahmadzadeh’s use of sound and color. In particular the sound design, which employs reverb and other effects, creates a trippy atmosphere in line with the drug use on screen. Though by nature episodic (Ahmadzadeh cut the film up into ten shorts, each of which went through the process of pre-production, production, and post), Critical Zone is a long trip through a society that has to find a new compass, because the institutions that fulfilled that role are broken. It provides an intriguing, madhouse portrait of Iran’s young generation that is both depressing and uplifting. Depressing because narcotics have become their anchor to cling to, and the final scene shows the dangers of that. Uplifting because creativity and free-thinking can thrive even under the most rigid conditions.