From its opening moments, an Orwelleian gloom envelopes Iranian director Farhad Delaram’s debut feature Achilles. The prying forces of an authoritarian government are unseen yet omniscient. And jeopardy of liberty and life looms over everyday activities. In the wake of the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests that have engulfed Iran for a year now, Achilles is a poignant and stirring reminder of the freedoms we take for granted. Here is a piece of art, that in its very existence, is an act of courageous, foolhardy, noble rebellion.

Achilles was made under extraordinary circumstances. An alternative script was submitted to the censorious Iranian government because even as he was writing it, Delaram said his real script did not have a prayer of getting approved. The filming coincided with the thick of the nationwide Mahsa Amini protests in 2022 and informed the intent of the filmmakers if not the film itself. Two months prior to Achilles’ world premiere in Toronto, Iranian authorities requested to see the film but Delaram turned them down, telling them that the film wasn’t complete––even though it was. After its premiere, for which Delaram traveled to North America, he was uncertain about the prospect of returning home as his film is––implicitly and explicitly––quite critical of Iran and its regime of suppression.

Achilles is also autofictional, if not outright autobiographical. The protagonist Achilles né Farid (Mirsaeed Molavian) is a disillusioned filmmaker who has given up filmmaking and works night shifts as an orthotist in a local hospital. One night, he has a brief encounter with a desperate woman Hedieh (Behdokht Valian), a political detainee, being held in the psychiatric ward in lieu of a prison. All of this actually transpired in Delaram’s life. Delaram never met the woman again as she tried to escape and was arrested soon after. Achilles represents an act of wish fulfillment on his part as in the film, Achilles helps Hedieh escape and the two embark on a road trip across Iran with the authorities in pursuit. The feeling of impending, inevitable doom and the walls closing in on them makes the film engrossing despite its relaxed pacing.

Walls in fact are the primary metaphor for the director’s statement. Perhaps despairing of ever making a film again––Delaram leans very heavily into symbolism. He respects the audience but isn’t shy about double-underlining his message. Achilles first meets Hedieh because she needs a brace for her hand––she was punching the walls of her hospital room which she felt were literally closing in on her. The film’s finale revisits the same theme in a visually striking tableau that some might find too on-the-nose but is nevertheless powerful. The film in fact closes with the declarative text on screen: “Dedicated to the people of Iran who can no longer tolerate the walls.” Any chargers of didacticism leveled against the film are neutered by the fact the filmmaker actually put his life in peril in the process of making this film.

Molavian is a canny surrogate for Delaram, fully inhabiting his crippling sense of impotency and perceived cowardice––before he once again finds in himself the urge to fight. Valian is a luminous presence and brings to life an intelligent, brave woman, still discovering her bearings after years of institutionalization. Together they forge a halting human connection that is difficult to pigeonhole with easy labels. The plaintive beauty of Iran’s dusty landscapes also finds expression in Mohammad Reza Jahanpanahs’ elegant cinematography. A nighttime wade through knee-deep seawater, an impromptu prayer in the middle of a dried lake, and a rural wedding sequence provide occasion for some striking imagery.

Achilles is an effective metafiction in the sense we can imagine the protagonist at the end of the film being precisely at the point where he would make a film like Achilles. It is certainly a marker in the timeline of Iran’s upheaval and a real-time rendering of how thwarted artists are coming to terms with the purpose and duty of their art.

Achilles premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: B

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