The Salvation of a Spanning/Spinning City: Drugs as Messiah in Critical Zone

By Daryl Cheong

There is no point in living, and there is no point in dying. Such is the fact of life in Critical Zone (2023), Ali Ahmadzadeh’s fourth feature which won the coveted Golden Leopard Award at 2023’s Locarno Film Festival. Spanning urban dwellers of varying ages: from young people raving in secret tunnels beneath the city to old bed-ridden patients administering drugs for a brief, temporary relief, no citizen in Critical Zone’s Tehran seems to be safeguarded against the prevalence of these substances. These contrasting images of youth and vitality, and decay and senescence, evoke the inescapable dread of existence where neither life nor death provides meaning, solace, or purpose to any human. In the face of crippling and nauseating transience and liminality, drugs are not just escape but salvation in the cold, lonely city.

Dressed in a white T-shirt, Amir is the city’s night-time angel, driving from street to street to deliver the drugs the dwellers need to survive. Without meting out moral judgement, the film regards drugs with an ambivalence that renders these substances akin to medicine. It seems to suggest that these substances not just heighten one’s consciousness and control over the self as drugs do, but a desideratum that stabilises such existence as medicine does. Such subversiveness is a preamble to the film’s positioning and portrayals of the burdened people in the film’s Tehran. ‘Amir’, after all, is Arabic for prince and commander and his rebellion is serving as the messiah to the faithless and lost.

Much of the film takes place on the road, in the confines of Amir’s car, bringing to mind the many road movies of Iranian cinema such as those of Abbas Kiarostami. It is here where Critical Zone is most playful and ground-breaking. Often, the camera finds itself upside down, the footage is intermittently sped up or slowed down, and the camera goes beyond the viewpoint of the driver Amir and takes the perspective of the car itself. As the film spans the wide-reaching landscapes of urban and rural Tehran and the old and young faces of its people, the camera itself becomes a whirlwind of experiences, disorientating the viewer with its spinning qualities. Not only effective in presenting new ways of seeing a familiar Tehran, it casts an unexpectedly empathetic eye toward users and traffickers, a judgement quite contrary to common perceptions towards drug use.

Set against such moral repositioning, the discordant confluence of Tehran’s sights and sounds within the film’s final chapter points to the filmmakers’ technical marvels and more importantly, to the resigned lack of resolution towards the issues at stake. With a collage of sounds (moans of pleasure and pain), effigies of empty Tehran streets, and disorienting footage speed, the film’s final moments as Amir drives home evoke Tehran’s restless psyche. The car’s brief pause, paired with Amir’s concealed body, captures a rare stillness amidst chaos, hinting at an end. This sense of an ending implies that true escape is not the drugs themselves, but in the stillness they offer and the hope for a fleeting moment of peace. Knowing that Critical Zone ends here does not spoil the experience but contextualises the journey Amir and the other characters are on. The GPS, Amir’s only companion, is perhaps too on-the-nose in expressing the film’s final words: “You have reached your destination”. It recalls the final words of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and calls the people of faithlessness and loss to understand where the destination is, or if there is a destination at all. It is in these final words, with this sense of ending, that everything is made meaningful.

Critical Zone seeks not to enlighten in any philosophical or moral manner, but to offer warmth and hope—even for just a moment—, before crumbling and resigning itself to the terror of an empty and lonesome existence. As a call to comfort, Ahmadzadeh and his subversive lens do not didactically demand acceptance of these Tehranians’ moral frays, but an encouragement to imagine life, and the liminality between life and death, the way they do.