Casual moviegoers, and perhaps even more dedicated ones—the kind who try to keep up on world trends—may harbor misunderstandings about Iranian cinema, thinking that it divides neatly between socially relevant domestic fare, like the movies of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), banned art house outliers, and films about children. Though all of these forms exist in plenitude, they don’t explain the economic vitality of the movie business in Iran, so Just 6.5, a police thriller that, when it was first released in 2019 proved to be the biggest non-comedy box office hit in Iranian history, is extremely instructive; a potent combination of cutting social commentary and fast-paced crime actioner.
The title refers to the estimated 6.5 million drug addicts in Iran, a serious problem exacerbated, according to some of the exposition, by the country’s draconian narcotics laws. Convicted drug pushers are sentenced to death, regardless of how much they peddle, so they try to peddle as much as they can and, in the process, create as many addicts as possible. The result of these extreme circumstances is illustrated in the opening scene where a band of cops raids a warren of dilapidated factory buildings populated by homeless drug users, and then chases one breathlessly through narrow alleyways until the prey falls into a ditch at a construction site and is promptly buried alive by an unknowing bulldozer operator.
This frantic opening, as good as anything you’ll see in an American cop movie, introduces us to the main police operatives, led by the frustrated upward-climbing veteran Samad (Payman Maadi) who, like all great cinematic law enforcers, is a mixture of protector and enabler, a man who understands how to game the system in his favor, whether that be in the service of a promotion or nailing a criminal. Non-Iranians may have problems sifting through the various motivations at play, especially when Samad himself is being investigated for possible corruption (warranted, it would seem), but the implications are unmistakable: bureaucratic protocols enacted to protect the government from blame in the spiraling drug problem hamstring law enforcement operatives, thus compelling them to resort to “extraordinary” methods.
Writer-director Saeed Roustayi makes the most of these dynamics, especially in scenes that take place within Iran’s infamous prison system, where large, filthy cells are so packed with arrested addicts that they sleep standing up. (Reportedly, Roustayi used real addicts as extras, and it looks it) Even more shocking is the velocity of the judicial procedure, which flies by so fast that it’s difficult to figure out what’s proper and what’s not, but in any case Roustayi doesn’t spare us the grisly outcome. This visceral presentation is couched in a carefully wrought story whose moral boundaries are constantly breached by our feelings for the various characters; not just the ethically compromised Saman, but also his nemesis, the obscenely rich drug dealer Nasser (Navid Mohammadzadeh), a ruthless kingpin who nonetheless has a huge extended family to support and protect and feels genuinely guilty about the lives he’s ruined in pursuit of what he calls security. More significantly, the technical aspects of this grueling film (135 minutes) are as good as anything you’ll find in Hollywood or South Korea. I hesitate to say that Just 6.5 depicts the real Iran, but what it does depict is harrowing and exciting.
In Farsi. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku K’s Cinema (03-3352-2471).
Just 6.5 home page in Japanese
photo (c) Iranian Independents