'The Warden': Film Review

The Warden Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Iranian Independents
The pleasure of watching authority collapse.

An inmate goes missing when an authoritarian warden (Navid Mohammadzadeh) has to move prisoners to a new facility in 'Melbourne' director Nima Javid's new dreamlike drama.

Having collected a star's following in a string of wild-man roles (I'm Not Angry!, Lantouri, Sheeple), young Iranian actor Navid Mohammadzadeh is sure to surprise his fans as a middle-aged, straitlaced martinet in The Warden. The character sees his plans for promotion threatened when, in the course of moving his inmates from one prison to another, one of them goes missing. Though there's little to do but order his guards to keep searching, Mohammadzadeh gives the one-note storyline a commanding presence and a pinch of dandyish irony. Festivals interested in Iranian subjects should be the first port of call.

Director Nima Javidi has a penchant for putting his characters into paradoxical situations. His award-winning first film, Melbourne (2014), was set in an apartment where a young married couple who are about to leave the country are unknowingly given a dead baby to babysit. In The Warden, the tension rises as the minutes tick by before the title character is forced to admit to his superiors that a prisoner on death row is missing. Like Melbourne's apartment, the vast labyrinth of the empty prison is a transitional space pushing the characters to reveal themselves, though here the feeling is not so much claustrophobic as dreamy and unreal.

The setting is the 1960s during the Shah's regime (allowing the film to include frivolous music and an unveiled woman), the central location an isolated prison in southern Iran. Bizarrely, in spite of all the empty land around it, it is scheduled for demolition because a new airport runway has to be constructed exactly where it stands. The sight of planes swooping low over the prison walls is surreal in itself, reinforcing the urgency of action.

The prison is just about empty as the curtain rises. Major Jahed (Mohammadzadeh) is marshaling his guards to get a heavy gallows ready for moving with the help of an old engineer-prisoner whom he forced to design the thing. The prisoners are being loaded onto buses offscreen.

Jahed’s mentor, Col. Modabber (filmmaker and actor Mani Haghighi), has promised him a big promotion, and the warden quivers with pride in his dapper tailored uniform. Suddenly the bad news: A prisoner who has been sentenced to death for murder is not on any of the buses.

At this point a manhunt begins in the empty prison. Joining Jahed is an independent social worker, Miss Karimi (Parinaz Izadyar.) Beautiful and stylish in her hat and period clothes, she is of liberal outlook and believes the escaped man, a sharecropper, has been framed for the murder of his landlord. The macho colonel is shy around women yet obviously attracted to her (at one point he plays a sultry love song over the prison's loudspeaker system.) But they are working at cross-purposes: While he pours himself body and soul into finding the runaway and saving his career, she's rooting for the escapee not to be caught.  

Some missing shoe polish and a pet turtle are the only clues to the prisoner's whereabouts, but they don't take the colonel very far, and his pompous authority slips away from him scene by scene. At the same time, Javid's attempts to turn the story into a mystery yarn fall flat. A subplot or two would have been handy to give the screenplay more dimension.

Perhaps the key lies in the gallows itself and the issue of capital punishment in Iran. Mohammadzadeh has had several close brushes with the noose in his films, including I'm Not Angry! and the recent box office hit Just 6.5. But despite the positive presence of Izadyar as a progressive thinker, the social issue doesn't emerge very strongly in a forced ending.

The directing is interesting throughout, and the empty cells and corridors inspire Javidi and his DP Hooman Behmanesh toward retro lighting effects and symbolic images. Ramin Kousha's driving score creates an operatic feeling.

Cast: Navid Mohammadzadeh, Parinaz Izadyar, Setareh Pessyani, Habib Rezai, Atila Pessvani, Mani Haghighi, Ismaeel Pourreza, Amir Keyvan Masoumi, Ali Mardaneh
Director-screenwriter: Nima Javidi
Producer: Majid Motalebi
Executive producer: Mehdi Badrloo
Director of photography: Hooman Behmanesh
Production designer: Mohsen Nasrollahi
Costume designer: Shima MIrhamidi
Editor: Emad Khodabakhsh
Music: Ramin Kousha
Venue: Cannes Film Marché
World sales: Iranian Independents

In Persian
100 minutes