Leila’s Brothers review – one woman, five misogynistic parasites in fierce Iranian drama

·3 min read

Iranian film-maker Saeed Roustayi delivers a big, absorbing, character-driven family drama in the Italian-American style with fierce performances, a huge set-piece wedding scene and touches of Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Coppola’s The Godfather. There’s even some Arthur Miller amid the angry, painful recrimination.

We get a blistering turn from Taraneh Alidoosti – known for her work on movies by Asghar Farhadi – playing the Leila of the title: a woman driven to distraction by the indolent, incompetent patriarchy. Leila lives with her elderly parents; she is plagued with periodic back pain brought on by stress and overwork and is basically the only regular wage-earner, single-handedly supporting four adult brothers.

Overweight Parviz (Farhad Aslani) works as a toilet cleaner in the mall, but does not make enough to feed his family, which grows as he tries repeatedly for a boy. Musclebound lunk Farhad (Mohammad Ali Mohammadi) is interested only in US wrestling on TV. Bone-idle Manouchehr (Payman Maadi) is looking for dodgy get-rich-quick schemes, not work. And Alireza (Navid Mohammadzadeh) recently quit a factory job whose bosses weren’t coming through with the wages.

At the head of all these useless, parasitical males is their ageing father, Esmail (Saeed Poursamimi) – a whining, self-pitying schemer, addicted to opium, and obsessed with becoming “patriarch” of his extended clan, a position that has fallen vacant with his cousin’s death. The cousin’s son Bayram (Mehdi Hosseinina) tells him the patriarch’s metaphorical crown could be his – as long as he pays 40 gold coins as a marriage present “tribute” at Bayram’s son’s forthcoming wedding. Greedy, foolish Esmail agrees – because he has the coins and knows that the patriarch’s unofficial perk is taking a secret “cut” from any and all marriage gifts at future weddings.

Meanwhile, Leila has latched on to an imaginative plan which could yet make the family an honest income: they could take the lease on one of the new retail units being built at the mall, symbolically on the site of Parviz’s public lavatory. But she can only get the bank loan with a deposit – she needs cash – and is enraged to learn that the old man’s stash of gold coins is going to be squandered in this fatuous, dishonest way. But can he be stopped?

Leila lives in a world of male crooks who never cease congratulating themselves on their status and prestige, yet are averse to anything resembling work and entirely content to leech off the women, rewarding them with misogyny and condescension. The cynical crook Manouchehr had suggested to his brothers a business meeting with a pal – Leila was naturally excluded from the meeting, as a woman. This opportunity turned out to be merely a scam to lease nonexistent cars, similar in its underhandedness to the patriarch’s “wedding gift” trick. And as with that trick, it is extremely likely that the person letting you in on the secret is making you the biggest victim.

Leila’s simmering rage at the contemptible mediocrity of her father and brothers, and the exhaustion of trying to save them from themselves, is the emotional energy that powers the movie, building to that climactic wedding scene. It is a great performance from Alidoosti, first among equals in a great ensemble cast.

• Leila’s Brothers screened at the Cannes film festival.