At a time of war and deep division in the Middle East, a film co-directed by an Israeli and an Iranian is in itself a victory. But the gripping sports drama TatamiThe film is about a female judo champion whose career is seriously threatened by the Iranian government during an international tournament. The film is more than just a promising collaboration between two filmmakers who have opposing sides in a major conflict.

It takes place on an exciting day at the World Cup in Tbilisi. Tatami – whose title refers to the mat on which judoka fighters fight – is both a compelling story of an athlete looking to win gold for the first time and a bitter political thriller in which Iranian women face persecution, intimidation and possibly kidnapping have fallen into the hands of their country’s far-reaching authoritarian regime. Lively staged and performed, with co-director and Cannes Best Actress winner Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy spider) as the lead actress, the film is a winner both behind and in front of the camera.


The conclusion: Exciting, in the truest sense of the word.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Competition)
Pour: Arienne Mandi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Jaime Ray Newman, Ash Goldeh, Lir Katz, Ash Goldeh, Valeriu Andriuta
Directors: Guy Nattiv, Tsar Amir Ebrahimi
Screenwriters: Guy Nattiv, Elham Erfani
1 hour 45 minutes

Shot in stark black and white by DP Todd Martin (The novice), which uses the academy ratio to give the drama a claustrophobic atmosphere, Tatami bears some of the hallmarks of classic boxing films like body and soul or The facility, in which a talented fighter is attacked by dark forces outside the ring while taking a beating inside the ring. Here, those forces are the political agents sent to Tbilisi to prevent national champion Leila Hosseini (the formidable Arienne Mandi, an American actress of Chilean and Iranian descent) from advancing too far in a tournament that could end with fighting – and possibly a loss to – reigning Israeli champion Shani Lavi (Lir Katz).

Instead of giving up the fight for the mob, Hosseini is forced to give up his power for the glory of Iran. She refuses this and wins one fight after the other, increasing the pressure on her trainer Maryam (Amir Ebrahimi) and her husband (Ash Goldeh) at home. Your decision changes Tatami into 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 compellingly female-centric perspective. Leila is a bull in the ring, taking out opponents with spectacular body slams (or whatever they’re called in judo) that she seemingly pulls out of a 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 pressure, both as Leila’s long-time trainer and as a daughter whose father is quickly taken into custody and possibly beaten for acting on behalf of the regime. The well-structured script (by co-directors Guy Nattiv and Elham Erfani) reveals that Maryam may have skipped a tournament even at the peak of her career, making her inner conflict all the more unnerving.

The film’s pressure cooker atmosphere builds to a crescendo as Leila nears the finale, enduring multiple hits on the mat as government criminals and the rest of her team tighten their grip on her. Yuval Orr’s dynamic editing keeps the action moving, switching between different viewpoints – including that of a concerned tournament official played by Jaime Ray Newman – while Martin’s roving camera takes us in and out of the ring for most of the film, all set in one location.

In a typical fight film, an underdog like Leila would defy all odds and win the title, even though her government does everything to stop her. That the filmmakers chose a different outcome is both a welcome and meaningful twist, and underscores the grueling political situation in which Leila and Maryam find themselves TatamiVictory is less about getting the gold and more about deciding which side you’re on, even if that means losing so much else in the process.

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