One of the best crime movies, and perhaps one of the best movies period, to come out in recent years was Iranian writer-director Saeed Roustaee’s epic police drama, Just 6.5. Set in a modern-day Tehran teeming with corruption, crackheads and cops fighting to keep the city from spinning out of control, it was the kind of sprawling, action-packed and morally complex thriller that they simply don’t make in Hollywood anymore — or if they do make it, it’s on television and it’s called TheWire.
Just 6.5 was never released in the US, which is as criminal as the milieu it so engrossingly depicted. Roustaee’s third feature, the equally epic if more intimate working-class family saga Leila’s Brotherswill hopefully give one of cinema’s most promising new talents more of a spotlight after its premiere in competition in Cannes.
The Bottom Line
A sprawling, passionately performed social drama.
Like a massive 19th century novel by Zola or Dickens condensed into a three-hour story, the movie follows five siblings struggling to stay afloat in a dog-eat-dog Iran stifled by fraud, class struggle, clan rivalries and an economy that’s forever teetering on the brink of disaster. Filled with powerhouse turns by an ensemble cast, many of whom also starred in just 6.5, Leila’s Brothers reveals the 32-year-old Roustaee to be a masterly, if aggressively unwieldy, filmmaker whose voice is clearly one to be reckoned with.
The films of fellow Iranian Asghar Farhadi come to mind here — both directors work frequently with Payman Maadi, one of their country’s finest actors — although where Farhadi tends to be more searching and suggestive, Roustaee puts it all out there in extremely bold ways, including scenes featuring hundreds of extras that have the monumental scope of a Cecil B. DeMille picture. His movies of him are overwhelming, hard-hitting kitchen-sink dramas in which he has no problem tossing in the kitchen sink as much as possible, and the wonder is how he manages to pull it off so well.
Leila’s Brothers centers around the titular sister, played by Taraneh Alidoosti (who broke out in Farhadi’s About Elly), and her quartet of brothers, each with his own shape, size and distinct personality type. There’s the moral anchor, Alireza (Navid Mohammadzadeh), who’s laid off from his blue-collar job at the start of the film, in a breathtaking sequence where scores of workers flee as riot police storm their factory, which we learn was shut down after the boss embarrassed away all the earnings.
The other three brothers run the gamut from the conniving yet vulnerable Manouchehr (Maadi) to the bodybuilding cab driver Farhad (Mohammad Ali Mohammadi) to the overweight janitor and family man, Parviz (Farhad Aslani). And then there’s the father, Esmail (Saeed Poursamimi), who wants nothing more than a little respect from both his children and extended clan, especially after an older patriarch passes away, leaving Esmail as a prospective candidate to take his place from him.
This, and the fact that the only person earning a real living in the household is Leila, is what propells a plot where the needs of the individual and the family unit are constantly colliding. Everyone wants to get ahead, but doing so inevitably means stepping over someone else, whether it’s your brother, sister, father or neighbor, in a crooked world where it’s impossible to make it big — or just make it all — without resorting to some form of disappointment.
Roustaee, who wrote the script, takes great pains to show how corruption has been seen into every level of Iranian life, from the scheming factory owners at the top to guys way down at the bottom like Parviz, who works as a bathroom attendant at a shopping mall and cons his customers into paying double to use the toilets. Out of the many swindles in Leila’s Brothers, the most audacious involves a business that Farhad wants everyone to invest in, where cars are pre-sold to potential buyers without ever actually being delivered. “It’s not a scam, it’s a job,” is how he justifies it, speaking more generally about a country where the lines between the two are forever blurred.
Farhad’s plan is just one of many that the siblings concoct in order to make a buck, duping one another so they can save one another from ruin. The tension this places on each one of them boils over at regular intervals throughout the movie, in scenes of hot-blooded drama where the actors lash out in a style more reminiscent of John Cassavetes than with what’s typically associated with Iranian cinema.
This is one way Roustaee distinguishes himself from the pack. The other is in the epic sweep he gives to the story, which, with its focus on a patriarch and his embattled heirs of him, can feel like a working-class, Tehran-set version of The Godfather. Collaborating again with DP Hooman Behmanesh, the director employs the kind of slow zooms that were a trademark of the 1970s, taking us from the universal orders of Iranian society to the travails of one family in a single shot. He knows how to go big when he needs to, such as in the factory sequence, or in an extended wedding scene that Coppola brings to mind as well as Cimino. But he also knows how to contain the action to a few individuals, making Leila’s Brothers above all a performance piece.
The cast brings tremendous energy and plenty of nuance to their roles; each character is loaded with contradictions, fighting for the family or their own interests, or sometimes both, well aware they’re rarely doing the right thing. Only Alireza seems to have any scruples about bending the law, which means he winds up taking more punishment than the others. Mohammadzadeh, already a standout in Just 6.5is exceptional here, most memorably in a long and grueling scene where he has to talk to a rival family member into getting scammed at his own son’s overpriced wedding.
That sequence revolves around Esmail’s ascension to the throne of clan leader, which entails him duping his five children into paying for it with their futures — in this case, by forgoing money that could be invested in a promising business venture. Although even that deal, which involves converting the bathroom Parviz attends to at the mall into a new clothing store, seems to be marred by legal issues with the property deed.
The only sibling rarely fooled by anything or anyone is Leila. She’s both the resident pragmatist (unmarried, she still lives with her parents de ella) and the one child with a viable career. That she’s typically ignored by the others because she’s a woman, witnessing her father and brothers make one bad decision after another, is one of many takeaways in a film that’s filled to the brim with ideas and social critiques.
One could argue that it’s all too much to handle, and there are certain moments when the drama staggers into full-blown melodrama — when it feels over-the-top and even technically a bit sloppy, as if the camera couldn’t capture everything neatly. In that sense, Leila’s Brothers is not a perfect movie, whatever that means anyway. But it’s a great movie both in scope and in what it’s trying to say about Iran through the story of one family’s countless hardships. As a filmmaker, Roustaee aims so high and wide that even if he misses his mark at times, he manages to find his own stirring voice.