An invigorating men-in-war movie, with an almost “Three Kings”-like flavor, Iranian action-drama “The Duel” will come as a pleasant surprise to auds sated by either peasant dramas or arty, metaphorical fare from the region. Punchily directed by Ahmad Reza Darvish, with a real sense of the smoke, noise and chaos of battle, this smart, well-played drama deserves wider recognition through the festival circuit as an example of quality commercial cinema from Iran. Ethnic-centered webs should also take note.
Opening as Zeynal Hamidavi is released after 20 years in prison for “treason,” story immediately flashes back to a frontline in the ’80s Iran-Iraq war. Zeynal is ordered by shifty government goons to lead a small group to recover a safe with “valuable national documents.” Zeynal, however, soon suspects there’s more to the safe than what he’s been told, and he and his friend, Yahya, make off with it.
After a first hour of almost continual battle scenes — fluidly staged in dusty desert landscapes — film morphs into a more complex story of relationships destroyed by the war. Back in the present, Zeynal, now an older man, returns to his oasis village. Constant theme of how loyalties shift over the years, and how misunderstandings are forged by circumstances, is underpinned by the running mystery of what was actually in the safe — now buried at the bottom of a river.
Strong perfs make the film’s second half as emotionally gripping as the more action filled first, and the script’s economic sketching of characters gives an immediacy to the conflicts generated. Helmer Darvish’s eye for landscapes in which the leftover metal detritus of war still lingers succinctly underlines the war’s effect on people’s lives without impeding the drama.
At a reported 50 billion rials ($5.7 million), film is claimed to be the most expensive production in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Released locally Nov. 10, pic won seven prizes at the Fajr fest in February, including for director, photography, and supporting actor (Kambiz Dirbaz).
Tech package is good, though the soundtrack could be cleaned up.