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Winners review – likeable love letter to Iranian cinema is too reverent for its own good

Scottish-Iranian director Hassan Nazer's metatextual ode to the movies is undeniably charming, but puts its heroes on a pedestal

Metatextuality is central to Winners, which opens with a dedication to Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi, four titans of Iranian cinema. Of course, metatextuality was key to the country’s cinema when it emerged as a powerhouse on the international festival circuit in the 1990s, the engine behind films such as Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990), Salaam Cinema (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995) and Taxi (Panahi, 2015, directly referenced here). Adding another layer to this, the central plot behind Winners revolves around the return of the Best International Feature Oscar statuette that Asghar Farhadi won in 2017 for The Salesman, a ceremony he boycotted in light of Trump’s ban on Iranians in the US.

On its journey home, the statuette goes missing, found in the street by Yahya (Parsa Maghami), a cinema-obsessed boy who lives in poverty in the countryside, an Afghan refugee. This acts as the trigger for a heartwarming and genial story, yet another semi-autobiographical love letter to the movies in a year full of them. Scottish-Iranian writer-director Hassan Nazer (who himself left Iran as a refugee over twenty years ago) does have a little bit more to say about cinema’s capacity for freedom – perhaps unsurprising given the strict censorship laws that stifle his home country.

As a whole, Winners is certainly charming and likeable. The film holds on to long panning landscape shots reminiscent of Kiarostami’s road movies, with Nazer’s light touch behind the camera never imposing itself. Star Paghami is another in a long line of effortlessly watchable child performers to have come from the country. Veteran actor Reza Naji is also fantastic, playing a hermit-like version of himself seeking privacy and anonymity long after winning the Silver Bear in Berlin for his role in Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows. Perhaps it may help to have some pre-existing knowledge of the basic contours of recent Iranian film history to get the most out of the many references: I got a great pleasure out of a body double of Panahi, shot exclusively from behind the head, as he drives around in his taxi.

But at what point does this metatextuality collapse in on itself and become mere reverence? Nazer clearly considers himself in great debt to the masters, but Winners eventually struggles to do more than simply revere these men. Farhadi is currently accused of plagiarism for his most recent film A Hero, and last year Kiarostami was also accused of stealing the entirety of 2000's Ten from actress/director Mania Akbari. Winners’ festival premiere was not long after these accusations, probably too tight a timeline to have an impact on filming, but it raises the spectre of having too much reverence for your heroes.

Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, released in UK cinemas last year was also profoundly metatextual and self-referential. Panahi used that metatextuality to critique and consider the many facets of Iranian culture and his own filmmaking methods and ethics; the work of a master for whom cinema is his very lifeblood. There’s no doubting the passion Nazer has as a filmmaker (prior to this, he’s used his career as a restauranteur to self-fund a number of films in the UK), but here the referentiality turns into reverentiality, showing an unwillingness to step forward and impose his own stamp on Iranian and British cinema (this is a UK-supported production, after all). Ultimately, each element of Winners is individually attractive and well-made but that slavishness leaves it without a final oomph.

Winners is released in UK cinemas on 17 March.

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