At a moment of war and deep division in the Middle East, a film co-directed by an Israeli and an Iranian is itself a victory. But the gripping sports drama Tatamiwhich follows a female judo champion whose career is seriously threatened by the Iranian government during an international tournament, is more than just a promising collaboration between two filmmakers from opposite sides of a major conflict.
Set during a nail-biting day at the world championships in Tbilisi, Tatami – whose title refers to the mat where judo fighters compete – is both a compelling story of an athlete trying to win gold for the first time, and a searing political thriller in which Iranian women are subjected to persecution, intimidation and possible kidnapping at in the nick of time. at the hands of their country’s far-reaching authoritarian regime. Vividly directed and acted, with co-director and Cannes Best Actress winner Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider) who plays one of the leads, the film is a triumph both behind and in front of the camera.
It comes down to
Gripping, in all senses of the word.
Location: Tokyo International Film Festival (competition)
Form: Arienne Mandi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Jaime Ray Newman, Ash Goldeh, Lir Katz, Ash Goldeh, Valeriu Andriuta
Directors: Guy Nattiv, Zar Amir Ebrahimi
Screenwriters: Guy Nattiv, Elham Erfani
1 hour 45 minutes
Photographed in stark black and white by DP Todd Martin (The newcomer), which uses the Academy ratio to give the drama a claustrophobic feel, Tatami bears some hallmarks of classic boxing films, such as Body and soul or The set-up, where a talented fighter is attacked by sinister forces outside the ring while taking a beating inside it. Here, those forces are the political agents sent to Tbilisi to prevent national champion Leila Hosseini (the impressive Arienne Mandi, an American actress of Chilean and Iranian descent) from advancing too far in a tournament that could end in fighting – and could possibly lose to – the reigning Israeli champion, Shani Lavi (Lir Katz).
Instead of fighting the fight for the mafia, Hosseini is forced to forfeit for the sake of Iran’s glory. She refuses to do this, winning one fight after another, increasing the pressure on her coach, Maryam (Amir Ebrahimi), and on her husband (Ash Goldeh) at home. Her decision changes Tatami in a compelling story of women versus men, athletes versus government agents, and freedom versus oppression.
It’s also a compelling sports film in its own right, and one with a convincing femmecentric point of view. Leila is a bull in the ring and takes out opponents with spectacular body slams (or whatever they are called in judo) that she seems to pull out of her hat. She is also a loving mother and wife – a fact that is put to the test when the authorities begin harassing her family and pressuring her to give up before she reaches the final round.
Maryam is also under fire, both as Leila’s old coach and as a daughter whose father is quickly taken into custody and possibly beaten so that she will act on behalf of the regime. The well-structured script (from co-director Guy Nattiv and Elham Erfani) reveals that Maryam herself may have forfeited a tournament when she was in the prime of her career, which makes her inner conflict all the more unnerving.
The film’s pressure-cooker atmosphere builds to a crescendo as Leila gets closer to the finale, surviving several blows to the mat as government thugs and the rest of her team tighten their grip around her. Dynamic editing by Yuval Orr keeps the action moving, cutting between multiple points of view – including that of a concerned tournament official, played by Jaime Ray Newman – as Martin’s roving camera takes us in and out of the ring, with most of the film on one location located.
In your typical fight movie, an underdog like Leila would prevail against all odds and win the title, even though her government does everything it can to stop her. The fact that the filmmakers have opted for a different denouement is both a welcome and meaningful twist, which underlines the grueling political situation in which both Leila and Maryam find themselves. TatamiVictory isn’t so much about getting the gold, it’s about choosing which side you’re on, even if it means losing a lot more in the process.