After the shock wave of Tehran Lawthe Iranian director returns with a third feature film, perhaps less ample in form, but just as impressive in mastery. Leila and her brothers paints the portrait of an Iranian family riddled with debt, dislocated on the one hand by the weight of tradition and on the other by the economic crisis. All carried by a troupe of actors and actresses edifying accuracy.
An unstoppable, almost silent opening sequence, an alternate editing setting up the stakes of a film that begins, in a way, with its end – at least with what announces the core of the story, namely the mourning of the godfather and therefore the quest for his successor –; a film that also begins with the sound of revolt, of the crisis that is contained, of the individual escaping cowardly from the chaos, from the crowd, in a scene of crush at the exit of a factory on strike recalling, as by anamorphosis, the opening scene and the police raid at the beginning of The law Tehran, through this same confrontation between the body of the state and the indistinct mass.
Finally, the last pillar of this sequence with three entries, the face of a worried woman, carrying on her shoulders the future of her family, Leila, played by Taraneh Allidoosti, who could well have won the interpretation prize at Cannes if it had not finally been awarded to his colleague Zar Amir Ebrahimi for her role in Nights of Mashhad by Ali Abbassi. This unstoppable sequence finally gives way to a river film of nearly three hours where, conversely, the word overflows on all sides, the staging fading slightly behind this influx of words, looks and gestures.
What is immediately striking in Leila and her brothers, just like in Tehran Law – one of the highest-grossing films in the history of Iranian cinema, which cleverly managed to escape censorship in its country of origin – it is the earth-shattering incarnation of larger-than-life characters, without None of them are ever set back or silenced by Saeed Roustaee’s stripped-down directing. The breathtaking Navid Mohammadzadeh, who here plays Alireza, the eldest of the siblings, who are undoubtedly offered the most beautiful moments of the film, is as inhabited by his character as when he played a drug trafficker ready to do anything to escape capital punishment in The law of Tehran.
The film also presents something of a reminiscence of that film, while occupying totally different genres, since that’s not the only familiar face to make an appearance. Payman Maadi, who we have seen in particular in the films ofAsghar Farhadi (About Elly, A separation), excels both in his role of pathetic and schemer brother and in the skin of the seasoned cop, while Farhad Aslani, who played a judge crumbling under paperwork, is illustrated here in the role of the cadet in charge of the expenses of the family. Whether Tehran Law was a thrilling thriller revealing the immense complexity of the relationship of power and influence in a society plagued by drug trafficking, Leila and her brothers, family drama whose pace is also based on the verbal contests between the characters, does not spare its suspense.
The law of the market
Roustaee’s previous film distilled a breathless uncertainty until the very last moments of the story, the scales being able to tip one way or the other at any moment; until the last moments of the feature film, no one was safe, neither the representative of the State nor his dissident, thus disturbing all moral benchmarks. Leila and her brothers, in another register, reproduces this same “principle of uncertainty” since, for nearly three hours, Leila (and her brothers therefore, without jobs) try as best they can to set up a business to get their family out of poverty, while that their embittered, heartbroken and regretful father, Esmaïl, seems ready to trade the already uncertain well-being of his family for the honors that are due to him as the new godfather of the family.
By virtue of tradition, the latter is indeed called upon to offer the first and most substantial gift at the wedding of the son of Bayram (Mehdi Hoseininia), his cousin. If the siblings will never really be able to bring themselves to confiscate the pride of the father (Saeed Poursamimi), Leila will never be able to let the blinded patriarch lead his family to ruin.
Challenging, Raeed Roustaee’s film undoubtedly is, but it is nonetheless fascinating in every corner. Leila and her brothers is certainly more caulked, but no less impactful than its predecessor and thus constitutes a new tour de force for the 32-year-old Iranian filmmaker. Each word is rigorously weighed, the battle being entirely in the looks and the verbal logorrhea that punctuate the exchanges between the characters.
The filmmaker thus gives birth to a disillusioned family fresco, crossed here and there by a symbolism that is admittedly a little emphatic – the staging of Roustaee espousing in turn the vertical architecture of the place, from Manuchehr’s apartment (Payman Maadi ) to the very structure of the family home as if to signify, very or even too literally, the dysfunction of the social ladder – but in the end compensated by the intense dramaturgy of the film, like a Greek tragedy. Dishonor, betrayal, fortune, crisis, fatality, where everything is played out and where everything is tied together.
Criticism of Iranian society and its institutions, certainly less virulent, poisonous and incisive than in his previous film, is still there, in the background, stifling his characters as the noose tightens around them. Once again, their fate depends less on their multiplied efforts, which all in all seem quite unsuccessful, than on the cogs of the system and the implacable law of the market – bank loans, exchange rates, gold prices, etc. –, all these mechanisms that tragically get the better of individuals. Despite its deliberately exhausting side, Leila and her brothers nevertheless remains a burning manifestation of the ferocity of current Iranian cinema, at a time when its main actors are blindly thrown into prison by a government more than ever overtaken by the powers of fiction.
Leila and her brothers by Saeed Roustaee, 2h49, with Taraneh Alidoosti, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Payman Maadi, in theaters August 24, 2022.