Credit: Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Leila’s Brothers — Saeed Roustaee [ND/NF ’23 Review]

April 7, 2023

“Dostoyevsky Iranian style,” reads one positive review of Leila’s Brothers, the third feature film by Saeed Roustaee, and in a way that writer has a point. Like the Russian existentialist, Roustaee is fascinated with bullheaded or deluded people who make bad decisions and then, out of misplaced pride or twisted ethics, double down on those choices until complete ruin is the only possible outcome. But unlike, say, Crime and Punishment, Leila’s Brothers is about people whose resentments make them exceedingly petty and unbelievably tedious. This is a long, bad film about pontificating imbeciles who barely resemble actual human beings, and the whole mess is played as if it were some sort of Greek tragedy.

Leila (the great Tarane Alidousti) is the lone daughter in a family of five kids, and although she is marginalized for being a woman, she feels it is her duty to protect her four impoverished, unemployed brothers. Alireza (Navid Mohammadzade) was one of hundreds who were swindled out of wages at their steel mill; Parviz (Farhad Aslani) is a janitor in a mall bathroom; Farhad (Mohammad Ali Mohammadi), as the siblings keep saying, “thinks with his pecs,”; and Manouchehr (A Separation’s Payman Maadi) is involved in several shady rackets. Leila convinces the brothers to pool their money and buy a stall in a section of the mall bathroom that is slated for remodeling into stores. And thus begins a never-ending series of schemes, betrayals, and money gained and then almost immediately lost.

One gets the sense that Roustaee is attempting the sort of complex humanist drama for which Asghar Farhadi is known. But Leila’s Brothers is not remotely up to that standard. Farhadi’s work is notable for its intricate plotting, driven by situations that arise when ordinary people must make difficult decisions under duress. By contrast, Leila’s Brothers exists in a bizarro-world where the family patriarch (Saeed Poursamini), an idiot and an addict, will destroy his family’s future for a chance at honor, in a scenario that is obviously a set-up. Leila, meanwhile, is determined to torpedo everything in the name of securing that mall shop, and as the bad choices and recriminations pile up, it’s hard not to wish the worst for all concerned.

Making matters worse, Roustaee directs with all the subtlety of a careening 18-wheeler. Time and time again, he will establish some emotional beat and simply hammer it to death. For example, when Alireza looks mournfully across the street at a woman with her child, it’s clear that she is someone he once loved. Roustaee shows Alireza peering through a gap in the door; the woman sees him in a glass reflection; and then he is seen looking once more, with the door closed just a bit more; and then she sees him again, her eyes misting over; and then finally, once again, Alireza stares at her before closing the gate. Leila’s Brothers is filled with moments like this, which are hacky and sub-televisual under any circumstance but unforgivable in a one-note, 160-minute film.

Amazingly, this was in competition at Cannes last year, and it was mostly dismissed or ignored at that time. It’s not clear why ND/NF decided to give it another chance, but hopefully this will be the last time it resurfaces before being properly consigned to a forgotten cinema past

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.