Lottery (Latari)

Iran (2018) Dir. Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian 

Being a young person in love isn’t always easy, the most common obstacle being the disapproval of our parents. Think yourself lucky that this is all you have to overcome because it could be a lot worse.

Amir Ali (Saed Soheili) and Nushin (Ziba Karamali) are a young couple planning to get married and enjoy life but realise that it won’t happen in their native Iran. Neither have much money but they dream of living in the US which means getting a green card and with their families unable – or unwilling – to help, Nushin suggests they enter the state lottery to win the funds.

Nushin suddenly disappears, leaving a video message for Amir Ali saying she had taken a year-long job as a translator in Dubai to earn the money for their US trip. A distraught Amir Ali is angry with Nushin’s father Reza (Alireza Ostadi) for letting her go since she didn’t discuss it with him first but it was entirely her decision. They then receive some tragic news from Dubai that changes everything.

There have been a few Iranian films reviewed on this site and they all have one thing in common – they’re heavy social dramas largely focusing on the oppression of women and other social injustices. Lottery bucks this trend by being a crime drama of sorts, yet the trenchant social commentary is very much present only aimed at a different target.

Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian is evidently a polarising figure around the Middle East and Gulf countries, incurring accusations of peddling offensive propaganda by his critics. Since we in the west only have the news and other Iranian films as a measuring stick, we have to give Mahdavian the benefit of the doubt, since other filmmakers like Jafar Panahi tend to support his view in their films.

With Lottery however, Mahdavian is directing his ire at the system rather than the people of Iran, eschewing the usual myopia of the patriarchy to look instead at how turning a blind eye to a serious matter destroys trust and faith in our fellow man, resulting in an avoidable and messy international incident.

Yet, for all the misgivings levied against it, Iran is technically the good guy in this tale, although it does essentially boil down to a case of the lesser of two evils. Initially this starts out almost like a western romantic drama, with our star crossed lovers together through their own choosing and not the product of an arrangement. Giddily in love, their dreams of a happy future is in the US but they know their parents won’t approve.

Reza, a widower, owns a modest clothing stall whilst Nushin works at a travel agents, a job that has afforded her to learn English, and Amir Ali is an aspiring footballer, training under former government employer turned coach Musa (Hadi Hejazifar). Typically, Reza and Amir Ali butt heads because they both love Nushin, but Reza won’t listen to Amir Ali’s concerns he has over Nushin’s boss after learning about his unsavoury reputation.

Nushin’s departure for Dubai is sudden and Amir Ali again tries to plead his case to Reza, his worry exacerbated when Nusin fails to reply to any calls or e-mails. Not long after, they receive the shocking news that Nusin had committed suicide and it is at the funeral that Reza confesses to Amir Ali and Nusin’s brother Nima (Javad Ezati) the truth – that Nurin went to Dubai to be a model, arranged by her boss.

Something interesting occurs here – Reza admits he actually encouraged Nusin to take the job because she was pretty and knew it would be easy money and it is Nima who is furious his sister is being sullied and at his father for letting her go. This switch in dynamic is curious, portraying the older man as a progressive thinker yet reminds us the strict patriarchal attitude is alive in some form.

But this isn’t about the usual Iranian family drama and the real meat of the matter now reveals itself. With Musa using his former connections Amir Ali talks to the authorities about investigating Nurin’s apparent suicide starting with her boss, the discussion turning to the idea that the modelling gig was a front for a prostitution racket and it would be politically dangerous to pursue it any further.

Taking into account the earlier reference of Mahdavian producing propaganda films, it is unclear if he has a personal beef with Dubai or is out to expose a genuinely serious issue of Iranian woman being lured to its bright lights and luxurious lifestyles by preying gangs of rich playboys. At one point, a friend of Amir Ali’s warning him about heading to Dubai even points out that Tehran is a far lenient place than Dubai, an ironic statement if there ever as one.   

Mahdavian tackles the issue of whitewashing by the media in both countries, adding an accusation of money affording impunity to immoral and illegal activities. He does this with a chilling and powerful climax that is heavy handed in its rhetoric yet feels authentic in its execution. Maybe this is patriotism over didacticism, the poignancy of the closing shot hits the hardest, more than any political commentary could.

Had this been a Hollywood film, the political aspect would be absent; instead, it would be played out as a straight up crime drama, possibly even a Taken-style vengeance thriller. That it comes from a country with its own dubious reputation for its treatment of women and a poor human rights record might scream of hypocrisy but Mahdavian has a point to make about how Iranian women can be victims to a different oppressive regime.

Lottery is an interesting and provocative film with an ambiguous but pertinent message to impart. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s worth a punt depending on how much leeway you can allow in interpreting the veracity and honesty of Mahdavian’s intentions for this film.