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#‘Tatami’ Review: Searing Iranian-Israeli Sports Drama Delivers an Especially Timely Punch

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At a moment of war and deep division in the Middle East, a film co-directed by an Israeli and an Iranian is already a victory in and of itself. But the gripping sports drama Tatami, which follows a female judo champ whose career is severely jeopardized by Iran’s government during an international tournament, is more than just a promising collaboration between two filmmakers hailing from opposing sides of a major conflict.

Set during one nail-biting day at the world championship in Tbilisi, Tatami — whose title refers to the mat where judoka fighters engage in combat — is both a riveting story of an athlete trying to achieve gold for the first time, and a searing political thriller where Iranian women are subjected to persecution, intimidation and possibly kidnapping at the hands of their country’s far-reaching authoritarian regime. Vibrantly helmed and performed, with co-director and Cannes best actress winner Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider) playing one of the leads, the film is a win both behind and in front of the camera.

Tatami

The Bottom Line

Gripping, in all senses of the term.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: 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

Shot in stark black-and-white by DP Todd Martin (The Novice), who uses the Academy ratio to lend the drama a claustrophobic feel, Tatami bears some of the marks of classic boxing flicks like Body and Soul or The Set-Up, where a talented fighter is attacked by sinister forces outside the ring while taking a pummeling inside it. Here, those forces are the political operatives 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 with her fighting — and possibly losing to — the reigning Israeli champ, Shani Lavi (Lir Katz).

Instead of throwing the fight for the mob, Hosseini is coerced to declare forfeit for the glory of Iran. This she refuses to do so, winning one combat after another, and thus deepening the pressure on her coach, Maryam (Amir Ebrahimi), as well as on her husband (Ash Goldeh) back home. Her decision transforms Tatami into a riveting tale of women versus men, athletes versus government agents, and freedom versus oppression.

It’s also an engrossing sports flick in its own right, and one with a convincingly femme-centric point of view. Leila is a bull in the ring, taking out opponents with spectacular body slams (or whatever they’re called in judo) that she seems to pull out of her hat. She’s also a loving mother and wife — a fact that’s put to the test when the authorities start harassing her family, pressuring her to give up before she reaches the last round.

Maryam is under the gun as well, both as Leila’s longtime coach and as a daughter whose father is quickly taken into custody, and possibly beaten, so that she’ll act on the regime’s behalf. The well-structured script (by co-director Guy Nattiv and Elham Erfani) reveals that Maryam may herself have forfeited a tournament when she was at the prime of her career, making her inner conflict all the more nerve-wracking.

The film’s pressure-cooker atmosphere builds to a crescendo as Leila gets closer to the final, surviving several beatings on the mat while government thugs, as well as the rest of her team, tighten their grip around her. Dynamic editing by Yuval Orr keeps the action on the move, cutting between multiple viewpoints — 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 the bulk of the movie set in one location.

In your typical fight flick, an underdog like Leila would wind up prevailing against all odds, winning the title even though her government does everything it can to stop her. That the filmmakers opted for a different denouement is both a welcome twist and a meaningful one, underscoring the grueling political situation both Leila and Maryam find themselves in. In Tatami, victory is less about getting the gold than about choosing whose side you’re on, even if it means losing so much else in the process.

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