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Opponent Film Review: Powerful Refugee Story

A close up of a man in the film Opponent

Headlined by a brilliant performance by the lead actor, Opponent tells a tale of tolerance and acceptance with documentary undertones.

“Are we supposed to live in this darkness?” asks one character in Milad Alami’s Opponent. While she may be referring to the light turning off in one of the scenes of the film, I immediately felt like this one line was the one that could sum up the entire movie and the journey that we see the main character go through.

Opponent follows Iman (Payman Maadi), an Iranian man who is seeking asylum in Northern Sweden, where he moved to as a refugee with his wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri), and their daughters Asal (Nicole Mehrbod) and Sahar (Diana Farzami). At the beginning of the film, a translator suggests that Iman would resume wrestling for Sweden to facilitate and speed up his asylum application. As a former Olympic wrestler in Iran, this decision causes internal conflict with his family and external challenges with his former teammates as the film also explores the complexities and realities of refugee life.

Payman Maadi is outstanding in Opponent with his layered and touching performance as Iman. Throughout the movie, he takes us on the character’s journey as we learn more about his past in Iran and the oppression that still plagues him, even after moving to Sweden. Heartbreakingly, we soon realise that the opponent Iman is fighting against might very well be himself by the end of the film. Nicole Mehrbod is also brilliant as Asal: despite the relatively reduced screen time compared to the lead actor, she also shines in this film, making us see every nuance of her character during the movie.

The directing is also particularly impressive in Opponent. As a sports film, the movie portrays wrestling particularly well. On one hand, the sport is easily accessible and understandable even for those in the audience who may not know anything about wrestling before the movie. On the other, the wrestling sequences become the key to intimacy, which is reflected in the camera movements and use of extreme close-ups. I also loved the way the setting is filmed and incorporated into the storytelling itself. From the very beginning of the movie, the North of Sweden feels very cold which stands in stark comparison to how Iran is portrayed with much warmer and lighter tones.

The family poses in the film Opponent
Opponent (MetFilm Distribution)

Overall, the aesthetic of the film feels very truthful, especially in the scenes set in the refugee camp which are undoubtedly some of the strongest ones in the entire movie. At the beginning of Opponent, we see various medium close-ups of all the families living in the refugee camp as they look directly at the camera. This sequence acts as a portrait of these lives that we may not see in the movie and as an important reminder that there are real lives and real people behind the immigration policies that we see discussed in our everyday political scenario. In this sense, the film has a documentary feel to it, despite being a fictional story, perhaps because it speaks to the director’s own experience of seeking asylum in Sweden from Iran.

Opponent focuses heavily on its main character and his family, but as the film went on, I kept wishing that it would also explore other characters. All the people we are introduced to are fascinating from the little we see of them, but it very much feels like they are left behind in favour of the main storyline. I also felt like the pace slowed down significantly in the second half of the film. While the final act is the most heartbreaking one, the stakes of the movie feel a lot less urgent once we find out the truth about Iman’s past.

Opponent is an important story that reframes the narrative of immigrant stories and offers a new perspective into the reality of what the lived refugee experience is like. The authenticity is the strongest element of the movie: while this is a fictional story, it very much speaks to some of what Milad Alami lived through when moving to Sweden. Therefore, Opponent is just another example of how important it is to showcase real stories from the perspective of those who have experienced them, especially when it comes to refugee cinema.

Opponent will be relased in UK and Irish cinemas on 12 April, 2024.

Opponent: Trailer (MetFilm Distribution)
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