Winners, directed by Iran-born and UK-based Hassan Nazer, is a heartwarming, if not particularly moving, film that serves as a tribute to Iranian cinema and a commentary on the disillusionment that may follow the festival circuit. This refreshingly innocent film, devoid of explicit sexual or political content, tells the story of a lost Oscar statuette and the lives it touches in a small Iranian village.
The film begins with a chaotic mishap involving a taxi, ultimately leading to the Oscar falling into the hands of two children, nine-year-old Yahya (Parsa Maghami) and his friend Leyla (Helia Mohammadkhani). Yahya, an avid film buff, is fascinated with movies, fueled by his relationship with Saber (Hossein Abedini), who lends the little boy DVDs. The movie-loving duo, along with Naser (Mohammad Amir Naji), a man with a hidden acting past (having won a Berlinale Silver Bear), become the centre of the narrative. The three work between a scrap yard and a refuse dump, where they rummage for metals.
The most coveted DVD between Yahya and Saber is Cinema Paradiso, which Saber claims he has seen more than a hundred times, finding new meaning in every rewatched scene, every reexamined shot. It’s a gentle signposting to the viewer that the love of film is central to this story, with the Oscar statuette serving as a suitably obvious McGuffin.
Nazer’s film is a multi-layered exploration of themes, from the love for Iranian cinema to the challenges of living in small towns. The tribute to cinema permeates the narrative with nods to legendary Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Maijdi, and Jafar Panahi. The film balances these themes with a strong sense of humour, exemplified by Saber’s amusing mispronunciations and the children’s innocent interactions with the Oscar.
One of the standout aspects of Winners is Nazer’s ability to draw exceptional performances from his young actors. This trait, a staple in Iranian cinema, is evident in the chemistry between Maghami and Mohammadkhani. The adult actors, especially Naji and Abedini, bring a mischievous sense of self-preservation and charisma to their roles.
Despite its innocent charm, Winners has its flaws. The introduction feels disconnected from the rest of the film, and specific plot points can feel contrived. However, the film’s documentary-style authenticity and exploration of the passion accompanying artistic expression ultimately compensate for these shortcomings.
The cinematography captures both the urban and rural settings with a focus on realism, and Hamid Bashe Ahangar’s editing maintains a fitting, relatively fast pace. At 85 minutes, Winners does not overstay its welcome.
While the film may not be groundbreaking, its free-spirited innocence and celebration of the power of cinema make it a delight to watch. Fans of Iranian cinema and those seeking an emotionally and comically engaging film will find Winners to be a heartwarming experience.