A Golden Leopard That “Means a Lot”

Ali Ahmadzadeh’s Critical Zone (2023)

The winner of the Golden Leopard couldn’t be in Locarno to accept the festival’s top award on Saturday. In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Critical Zone, a hallucinogenic tour of Tehran’s underworld shot with hidden cameras and nonprofessional actors, Iranian authorities pressured writer and director Ali Ahmadzadeh and Locarno artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro to pull the film from the program—to no avail. Banned from leaving the country, Ahmadzadeh has been repeatedly interrogated by the Iranian secret service and barraged with threats from people Critical Zone producer Sina Ataeian Dena calls “supporters of the Islamic regime.”

As the Film Verdict’s Deborah Young points out, much of Critical Zone is set inside “that iconic location of modern Iranian art films (Kiarostami, Panahi, etc.): a moving vehicle.” There’s a chase sequence that’s “one of the most extraordinary in Iranian cinema, shot in the dark with perfect timing and manic energy.” Guided by his GPS, Amir (Amir Pousti) glides through the Iranian capital delivering drugs to his customers, and as the International Cinephile Society’s Marc van de Klashorst notes, “he is so much more to them than just their pusher: a confidant, a shoulder to cry on, a soulmate, a healer.” The “surreal, parallel universe he creates with his ‘magic potions,’ but also with his hypnotically comforting words,” writes Giorgia Del Don for Cineuropa, “releases those who experience it—even if only for a night—from the oppressive censorship around them.”

Winning the Golden Leopard “means a lot,” said Ataeian Dena on Saturday. “Not only for Ali, but it inspires and empowers a lot of Iranian underground filmmakers, whose voices are censored . . . I don’t want you to be happy. I want you to be angry that he is not here, that from left or right, freedom of expression is being attacked.” Nazzaro tells Variety’s Marta Bałaga that he was “fed up with the ‘official’ films from Iran, the ones where you have to read between the lines. What struck me [here] was the sheer audacity, the bold approach. It’s an extremely courageous film.”

The jury for the international competition—Lambert Wilson (president), actress and producer Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider), Film at Lincoln Center president Lesli Klainberg, European Film Academy CEO and director Matthijs Wouter Knol, and filmmaker Charlotte Wells (Aftersun)—presented a Special Jury Prize to another film that, for much of its running time, takes place inside a car. As we noted last week, Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World was a major critical favorite in Locarno this year, and now it heads to festivals in Toronto,New York, and Bucharest.

Jude joined Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna Vroda in calling out “Slava Ukraini!” when Vroda won the award for Best Direction for her first feature. At the Film Verdict, Jay Weissberg writes that Stepne, “a richly lensed meditation on loss—of a mother, of ties to the land, of a traditional existence—is a melancholy recognition of a nearly extinct way of life in rural northeastern Ukraine, a locale seemingly untouched by the Russian invasion, expiring from modernity rather than conflict.”

Locarno introduced gender-neutral acting awards this year. Dimitra Vlagopoulou, the winner of one of two prizes for Best Performance, plays an entertainer at an all-inclusive resort on an unnamed Greek island in Sofia Exarchou’s Animal. At Little White Lies, Marina Ashioti finds that Vlagopoulou “takes us through her character’s emotional peaks and troughs with raw intensity and naturalism.”

In what Neil Young, writing for Screen, calls a “belated, welcome return to the international spotlight for Paul Verhoeven’s early-’80s leading lady,” Renée Soutendijk, the other winner, delivers an “outstanding” performance as a widow in Ena Sendijarević’s Sweet Dreams. For the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer writes that the film, set in 1900 in the Dutch East Indies, explores “Europe’s troubled colonial history through a postmodern mix of satire, surrealism, and cinematic lyricism.”

The jury gave a Special Mention to Obscure Night — Goodbye here, anywhere, an experimental documentary that Sylvain George shot in Melilla, an autonomous Spanish enclave in Morocco. “George embedded himself with a small group of homeless immigrants barely scratching out a living each day,” writes Michael Sicinski at In Review Online. These young men “hang out, try to find food, get high, and generally exhibit laddish behavior,” and George alternates their scenes with overhead shots of attempted border crossings. “We are situated at the heart of the European immigration crisis,” writes Sicinski, “but after three hours, we don’t really understand its inner workings much better than we did at the start.”

Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming & Dying, starring Peter Yu, Kelvin Ho, and Doreen Toh as friends in their fifties who find themselves in a love triangle, won the top award in the Cineasti del presente competition, Locarno’s showcase of first and second features, and the First Feature Award. Dreaming & Dying “feels uniquely Singaporean in its reflection of the complex psychic state of the country, which can teeter between a coastal dreamland and a cloistered urban nightmare,” write Maja Korbecka and Minh Nguyen for Variety.

Also premiering in the competition was A Good Place, a mysterious portrait of two women in a small village and the winner of the Best Emerging Director Award for Katharina Huber and one of the Best Performance awards for Clara Schwinning. The other Best Performance award went to the two stars of Claudia Rararius’s Touched, Stavros Zafeiris and Isold Halldórudóttir, who play, respectively, a man paralyzed from the neck down and his caretaker. A Special Mention went to Camping du Lac, in which documentarian Éléonore Saintagnan ventures into hybrid territory, leading her, as Aurore Engelen writes at Cineuropa, “ever deeper into the lands of Guerlédan Lake, but also into her own imagination, summoning the memory of Saint Corentin and offering up a delightfully artisanal hagiography of the man who spoke to his fish.”

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