Venice 2023 review: Tatami (Guy Nattiv & Zar Amir-Ebrahimi)

Tatami is a strong film about normal people becoming the victim of the power games of ruthless systems and governments.”

She really is having to defend for her life here.” A throwaway line from a sports commentator gets an ironic and sinister undertone in Iranian sports drama Tatami, the joint effort by Israeli director Guy Nattiv and Iranian actress-turned-director Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, best known for her Best Actress win in Cannes for last year’s Holy Spider. It is a historic first Israeli-Iranian collaboration in the director’s chair, but the outcome is perhaps not as memorable as it hoped to be. A duo of strong performances by Amir-Ebrahimi herself as well as The L Word actress Arienne Mandi, and DoP Todd Martin’s sharp black-and-white lensing, cannot fully mask how this cry for freedom and justice falls for the trappings of the genre and becomes too on-the-nose at times. One more screenplay draft would have probably fixed the issues that keep Tatami from being the truly powerful film it clearly wants to be. The political and human message rings loud and clear, and true, but the taut thriller doesn’t quite get it across organically.

Leila (Mandi) enters the World Judo Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia as an outsider in her weight class. Her former idol and coach Maryam (Amir-Ebrahimi) closely watches over her as she mingles with other judokas, including an Israeli girl who Leila is on friendly terms with. After locking in an easy opening-round win and then stunning the reigning champion, Leila looks destined for the final. And that’s when the phone call comes… The head of the Iranian judo association urges Maryam to either withdraw her pupil or make her fake an injury and lose, seeing as she might face the Israeli judoka later in the tournament. In what could be the tournament of her life Leila is suddenly forced to take decisions that could drastically alter not only her life, but also those of her husband and young son back in Tehran. In the meantime on the edge of the tatami her coach relives her own past as she tries not to succumb under the pressure being put on her by government agents, while representatives of the International Judo Federation start to question her erratic behaviour towards her athlete.

Inspired by a number of Iranian athletes who have defected or bravely faced the consequences of not following the Iranian government’s strict rules, and strongly reminiscent of the real-life story of judoka Saeid Mollaei who was ordered to forfeit a match in the 2019 championships to avoid the prospect of facing an Israeli opponent (Mollaei refused, and shortly after defected), Tatami is a political drama that incorporates thriller elements to keep interest levels up, as its narrative’s short timespan of a couple of hours of judo matches runs the risk of feeling repetitive. The claustrophobia induced by the Tbilisi sports arena, with its Soviet building style and its cavernous catacombs, is enhanced by the directorial decision to keep the crowds around the tatami in darkness, focusing on the despair of the protagonist as she continues to fight her way through the tournament despite the threats against her and her family intensifying. Danger always seems to be lurking in the shadows of the black-and-white images, the Academy-ratio frame intensifying Leila’s oppressive feeling of being cornered.

Both directors stuck to what they knew best during the shoot, with Nattiv focusing on the visuals and the technical side of the project, while Amir-Ebrahimi worked on the acting and the Iranian aspects of the story. Nattiv, whose Golda starring Helen Mirren as Israel’s first female prime minister is also currently out in theatres, puts a strong directorial stamp on not only the visual storytelling through the aforementioned cinematographical choices and the use of limited space, but also by using the passage of time to build to an apotheosis. The natural rhythm of alternating pre-match preparations and actual matches is sped up, both as Leila progresses in the tournament and also as the ticking time bomb of her situation nears its explosive end. Using this format introduces some factual errors (Leila fights more rounds than an actual tournament is comprised of; then again, she is in a nonexistent weight class anyway), but it makes for a thrilling film.

Amir-Ebrahimi gets the best out of her actors, though to be fair Tatami only has three sizable dramatic roles, of which she fills one. It should be no surprise that her co-lead performance is magnificent, but the L.A.-based Mandi matches her in intensity in a role that is both physically and dramatically demanding. The two roles are quite different in nature, but both equally gripping and strongly playing off each other. Somebody who doesn’t have much to hold onto in terms of acting partners is Ash Goldeh as Leila’s husband Nader: his acting partner is his phone which is used to stay in contact with his wife during her ordeal and his attempted flight out of the country. Despite this the actor convinces, and in the few scenes he does have with Mandi, flashbacks to happier times in underground clubs and lush hotel rooms, his loving presence reminds the audience that Leila has a home front to consider as well.

Athletes are fairly intense in their desire to win and to achieve the highest, at all costs. Tatami drives this to the extreme, and shows how unfair the interference of the state is, shattering the dreams of people who have worked their whole career for that one peak moment. Regardless of how they feel about the political situation, they become a pawn in the game of rulers. The film definitely drives this message home, although it can get very heavy-handed. When Leila can hardly breathe during a gruelling match, the moment she takes off her headscarf is played up as her throwing off a yoke and all subtlety goes out the window. There are several moments like this, moments the film doesn’t need because the story and the acting are powerful enough to get an audience to understand the injustice of the situation. And while the directors use the tournament format to their advantage to control pacing and tension in the film, the matches themselves become fairly predictable until the film throws a curveball late in its runtime. These negatives can’t really overcome the impact the film has though, and while the artsy approach (thankfully) dampens the melodrama, Tatami is a strong film about normal people becoming the victim of the power games of ruthless systems and governments.