27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran: Me (2015)
written by: Soheil Beiraghi
produced by: Saeed Khani and Saeed Sa’di
directed by: Soheil Beiraghi
runtime: 84 min.
U.S. release date: February 4, 2017 & February 5, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
If you’re at all familiar with the insane quality of cinema coming from Iran in recent years, than you should recognize Leila Hatami, if not by name then definitely by face. She’s made a name for herself playing stubborn and strong women in film’s like 2011’s “A Separation” and 2014’s “Dorane Asheghi” and always has an intoxicating presence on the screen, regardless of how likable her characters are. Hatami is genuinely the MVP of any film she’s in and that’s why writer/director Soheil Beiraghi is fortunate to have her headline his directorial debut in “Me”, a drama which proves to be a showcase for Hatami’s immeasurable acting prowess.
Hatami plays Azar, a single woman teaching music to children in Tehran, yet there is definitely more going on with her. Unbeknownst to the majority of the people she interacts with, Azar is actually a successful crime boss, overseeing an empire of her own creation in which she trades stolen or imitation goods and forged documents to the highest bidder. She is also involved in smuggling alcohol, as well as supplying fake passports and visas to desperate people and manipulating land owners. Maneuvering through the city’s underworld with a calculating coldness, Azar encounters men who would disregard, underestimate and second guess her, but her ruthlessness and arrogance was forged for years, resulting in a hardened resilience that factors undeniably into her success.
There are a handful of characters to keep track of in “Me” and at least one we never see. At the opening of the movie and intermittently throughout, we see Azar listen to ominous messages from a security official who warns her that she’s being watched. These “trust no one” messages become more serious when she is told to cease all of her schemes and illegal activities. As the story unfolds, viewers will wonder who is it exactly that’s betraying Azar . She may be a ruthless and cutthroat character, but we are nevertheless fascinated by her and wonder how and what she can get away with next.
Hatami is a wonder to watch, portraying Azar as an unpredictable, enigmatic woman whose power is met with resentment and frustration. “Me” is at its best when we study Azar as she interacts with those who want something from her and individuals she wants something from. There’s the young, handsome man who wants her help catapulting him into a successful singing career and there’s a local woman Azar is trying to swindle property from. Is Azar contemplating this boy toy’s flirtations? Is she actually trying to be genuine and not typically duplicitous with this woman? Is she just addicted to the thrill of getting away with her activities? Hatami leaves us guessing throughout and this is a film that solidifies both her strength (not that it needed to) and versatility as an actor.
The more time spent with Hatami’s Azar, the more we want to know about her. She is indeed a powerful presence on the outside, but in her bare and desolate apartment, she can be perceived as a woman who’s built walls around herself – self preservation has breeded loneliness.
This is an impressive feature-length debut from Beiraghi and I’d be interested in learning what influenced his screenplay and directing choices. The writer/director offers a bustling modern-day Tehran, full of energy and intensity which is used to the film’s advantage. While the cast is great here, “Me” confirms what many of us already know about Leila Hatami – she’s a treasure to behold and fascinating to watch. Now to catch up on all her other films….
NOTE: “Me” opens this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Chicago theater’s Annual Festival of Films from Iran. More about the festival and to purchase tickets here.