Venice 2022 review: Beyond the Wall (Vahid Jalilvand)

“The true scope of this might come too late in the film to save its bewildering plot, but Beyond the Wall is a masterclass in direction that shows Jalilvand at the top of his game and attuned to the type of psychological thriller he is making.”

Third time’s the charm for Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand. After two Orizzonti entries (and picking up two awards there for his second film No Date, No Signature in 2017), on his third feature he has been promoted to the main competition. His twisty-turny thriller Beyond the Wall is a cleverly constructed tale of sacrifice and humanity that might not please those who do not appreciate Sixth Sense-style ‘gotcha!’ moments that turn the film upside down, but there is no denying that Beyond the Wall is exceptionally well directed and features a towering performance by Navid Mohammadzadeh. Jalilvand already directed Mohammadzadeh to a Best Actor win in the Orizzonti section five years ago, and he might just be in the running for a Volpi Cup this time around.

A dripping tap in a dilapidated, concrete room. A man tries to suffocate himself using a T-shirt and a plastic bag. After an immense struggle he decides life is still worth living, though it soon becomes apparent that this is barely the case. Someone is banging on the door of his decrepit apartment. A woman on the run has been seen entering the building, the guard at the door says; could he perhaps keep an eye out for her? An odd request to make of a man who is nearly blind. As the man, whose name we later learn is Ali, shuffles around his almost furniture-less dwelling, focus shifts to the fugitive woman. Blood on her clothes and panic in her eyes immediately elicit sympathy. As she hides in Ali’s apartment, a game of remaining undetected by this unknown man starts. Eventually the woman, Leila, loses this game, but Ali has no intention of giving her up to the authorities. He’d rather hear her story, of how she was arrested with a group of fellow factory employees over a labour dispute gone violent, yet managed to get away when the police van that held her crashed into an oncoming truck. As Ali and Leila become more comfortable around each other, the police start snooping around and surround the building. How will Leila ever get out, hopefully to be reunited with her young son?

Though Beyond the Wall drags around the midway point, Jalilvand’s direction of the opening cat-and-mouse game between Ali and Leila, which transitions into Leila’s trajectory leading up to their fateful meeting, is downright impressive. The two main characters moving around in total silence is in stark contrast to the ever increasing chaos and cacophony of sound at the workers’ protest and the ensuing mayhem in the police van, which ends in one of the most visceral car crashes in recent memory. Jalilvand’s rapid cuts mixed with the overlaying or repetition of scenes dials the tension up to 11, but at some point the film loses steam, because after Ali and Leila have made contact there is only so much one can do with this variant on Assault on Precinct 13. It isn’t until we meet Ali in a different role that the film gets going again, although it makes for a terribly confusing plot (this happened to Orizzonti Extra entry Without Her as well, so maybe this is an Iranian trend). Beyond the Wall niftily ties this up with one of those twists that suddenly make the whole film fall into place, after which we also finally learn what the wall in the title signifies.

Beyond the Wall would definitely benefit from repeat watches to lay bare the intricacies of the plot. An added bonus to that strategy would be to witness Navid Mohammadzadeh at work again. His ‘almost blind’ acting of a psychologically defeated character is a wonder to behold, his world-weary demeanour belying a tenacity and shrewdness in the character. Mohammadzadeh keeps the performance small, but the physicality of the role is impressive. Next to him, Dayana Habibi’s Leila is underwritten, giving the actress little more to work with than panic and tears; admittedly, Habibi covers these emotions very well, but her character feels like less of an arc and more of a plot device.

Though certainly giving us visual clues (generally the ones you only notice in hindsight), Jalilvand keeps the true nature of Ali’s character hidden until the final minutes of Beyond the Wall. Some audiences may feel cheated, but the Iranian director trusts his audience to fill in the gaps left behind after taking away the curtain to see what’s inside Ali’s soul and what exactly the relationship between Ali and Leila entails. On its surface, Beyond the Wall is a thriller that requires full attention, but underneath lies a moving story of sacrifice and helping a fellow human out no matter the cost. The true scope of this might come too late in the film to save its bewildering plot, but Beyond the Wall is a masterclass in direction that shows Jalilvand at the top of his game and attuned to the type of psychological thriller he is making.