Mardan’s opening shot is as intense as they come: a face in close-up, its haunted eyes staring into the lens so as to not meet the glare of some awful monster on the other side of the camera. But there are no monsters in in this commendably solid feature from Batin Ghobadi – just painful memories. And that gaze won’t leave us for the movie’s duration.
The eyes belong to the titular character (Hossein Hasan), is a police officer based in Iraq, constantly in the throes of med-suppressed epilepsy and some unique brand of existential dread. When a mystery presents itself in the form of a disappearance, Mardan takes it upon himself to help the missing man’s wife Leila (Helly Luv) on a mission to find him. As he goes deeper into the case, which takes him from Iraq’s stone-banked rivers to its dry hill-scapes, he gets closer and closer to a conspiracy that involves something a whole lot bigger than a mere missing person.
The plot could be from any other crime flick in which the bedraggled cop takes on one last case, only to be sucked closer to the unexpected all-encompassing evil at its centre. Mardan may tread the same footsteps, but remains its own movie every step of the way. There’s a sobriety here that is rarely come across, even in the bleakest pictures non-Western cinema has to offer; Ghobadi’s measured compositions contrast the swirling emotional turmoil inside Mardan, who witnessed a henious crime in his youth which still creeps back on him to this day; this imbues the proceedings with a sense of inevitability, and a shred of knowledge of the fate Mardan will arrive at. But there is also a severity that is hard to shake off; while there is much to admire in Mardan, there is also little to truly enjoy. Its sociopolitical metaphors also reek of ambition, and fall short of the lofty heights of similar recent police procedurals such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Nonetheless, Mardan’s stare will still burrow into the back of your skull, and leave a hefty mark.