*Contains Spoilers

Farhad Delaram’s “Achilles” premiered for the first time in the US at the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday. The film exemplifies the cinematic innovation and rebellion coming out of Iran, offering poignant commentary on the struggle of creating art under the Islamic regime. 

Farid (Mirsaeed Molavian), a filmmaker turned hospital orthotics assistant, hides from his family and friends in the hospital, throwing himself into his work. His wife attempts to bring him home and convince him to return to his art, but a distraught and withdrawn Farid refuses, pushing away the people who love him. 

He forms a bond with a psychiatric patient named Hedieh (Behdokht Valian) and sneaks her out of the hospital for what he intends to be one night of freedom. Their friendship beams with authenticity; Farid’s demeanor differs when he is with her. After discovering she is a political prisoner, the two decide to run, both in an attempt to flee the authorities as well as their own minds. 

Farid refuses to turn Hedieh into the police, taking on the role of her protector. He hides her in his grandmother’s home, providing a sense of makeshift freedom for them both. Here, they cling to whatever small moments of liberation they can find. Hedieh wanders into their neighbor’s backyard party, for example, and they experience, alongside the audience, a moment of relief from the tension. This is quickly stolen as Farid hears of the death of his father. 

Not a moment of the film feels safe. Delaram successfully creates a sense of heaviness that permeates the screen and lingers in the audience, even after they have left the theater. Low light, intimate close-ups, sharp shadows and an eerie soundtrack leave the viewer perpetually ill at ease, mirroring the suffocation experienced under the authoritarian government of Iran. 

Delaram’s artistic act of rebellion supersedes Iranian censorship, using the motif of walls as a clear metaphor for governmental suppression. Farid first meets Hedieh when she punches the walls in the psych ward and hurts her hand. The walls speak to her, keeping her up, caving in, and leaving her unable to sleep. The film’s ending cements the metaphor, with the words “dedicated to the people of Iran who can no longer tolerate the walls” sprawled across the screen. 

Filmed on-site in Iran, “Achilles” also brims with breathtaking landscapes. Following Farid and Hedieh from Tehran and the Caspian Sea through to the Turkish border, the cinematography stands out most notably during the film’s coverage of Iran’s mountainous scenery. The extremely wide shots make the characters look awfully small compared to their surroundings, again creating a sense of entrapment.

Existentialist moments sprinkled throughout Farid’s dialogue relay the realities of living under Iran’s government, as well as an artist’s struggle to create under oppressive conditions and the looming presence of censorship. Farid’s conversation with his ex-wife, for example, relays a loss of passion and lack of hope that is just simply devastating to watch. 

Overall, the film does a spectacular job of creating a pressure cooker of a film, leaving the audience on edge with very few moments of relief. While some nuances of the dialogue are lost in the subtitles, the film truly is an emotional cinematic feat that is 100% worth the watch. 


Rating: 9/10