Opponent (2023) (Motståndaren)

photo by Paula Holmgren

Opponent, written and directed by Milad Alami, is a powerful, must-see film about the refugee experience and conflicted desires.

Culture shock jocks?

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Don’t let the fact that Opponent seems to be about wrestling put you off, because it’s not, though it is about a wrestler. Writer/director Milad Alami (award-winning The Charmer)’s second film Opponent is very human, based on his experience and it draws you in.

Opponent’s two central characters are acted with incredible nuance. Iman (Payman Maad, A Separation, About Elly) was a professional wrestler for his country in Iran. He and his pregnant wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri, who won Best Actress for this role) suddenly flee Iran with their two young daughters as dangerous rumours circulate. As refugees, the family is placed in one room in a basic hotel in the snowy far north of Sweden.

Opponent shows what the precarious state of being a refugee does to a family. The bureaucratic process of applying for asylum and appealing refusal can send applicants into meltdown as the authorities don’t seem to care.

Everything in the family’s life is temporary and it’s hard to settle: they even have to move from the room they are living in as new refugees arrive. Iman tries to provide for his family in an unfamiliar country: perceptive Maryam is forced into the role of ‘just a’ housewife supporting her husband, whereas it turns out that in Iran she had a career – she was a musician and piano teacher.

Sweden’s freezing cold and dark winter climate is hard for Iman and Maryam: it is so different from the environment they know. The fantasy sequences where their imaginations run free are heart-breaking. And for refugees from a Muslim country, there is the culture shock of how to handle the Scandinavian freedom to behave in ways that were taboo in their past life.

Believing the family’s asylum application would stand a better chance of success if he wrestled for Sweden, Iman enrols for training, but against Maryam’s wishes. We don’t know why she thinks that as yet. He is befriended at the gym by a young Swedish man, Tomás (Björn Elgerd), who becomes his practice partner. Attending an international training camp brings Iman into contact with his former Iranian team mates: secrets come out as a result.

The film starts with Iman running from the police in Iran. Shockingly, he beats his informant to a pulp. In the course of the film, we come to understand why this was not what we thought: Iman is conflicted and wrestling with himself as well as the opponent we see him wrestle in the ring.

Opponent is unsettling and involving. It is eye-opening to see the human hardships of refugee life in Europe. This ambiguous film has twists and turns that keep you guessing.

Opponent premiered at the 2023 Berlinale. It is released on 12 April 2024 in the UK and Ireland by Met Film. Milad Alami is also taking part in two post-screenings Q&A’s next week:
Curzon Bloomsbury, 11 April – https://www.curzon.com/films/opponent/HO00005233/
The Garden Cinema, 13 April – https://www.thegardencinema.co.uk/film/opponent/

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