A gust of progressive and very feminine wind sweeps through the empty corridors of soon-to-crumble male institution in “The Warden”, second feature from Iranian director Nima Javidi, whose 2014 debut “Melbourne” collected a good deal of awards and consensus. Equally location-centered and set in a closed environment, The Warden is less claustrophobic than “Melbourne” and more evocative and darkly atmospheric.
A gallows with its black outline under the pouring rain is the first, strongly allusive scene of the movie. A group of prison wardens is trying to take it apart but the old artifact is too strongly built and refuses to came down. The whole prison building is about to be evacuated and the inmates relocated in new facilities due to the construction of a new airstrip just where the old building sits. Major Jahed (Navid Mohammadzadeh) is the head of the prison and in charge of the transfer; he literally cannot wait to leave and start a new chapter in his life, having just been handled a big promotion to Chief Constable by his superior Col. Modabber (Mani Haghighi). Prison management assignments can be dead-end jobs and Jahed is understandably flattered to be moving on “not for rank but for real merits”. He is in fact well known for his stern sense of duty and his dedication.
Once all the inmates have been moved and the excavators at the door are ready to start the demolition, the officers realize the numbers don’t add up; one dead row prisoner is missing! Reluctant and furious, Major Jahed is forced to stay behind and look for the inmate, who is unequivocally hiding inside the empty old prison. With the help of social worker Miss Karimi (Parinaz Izadyar), a profile of the man is drawn. A humble peasant, he had been accused of killing his land owner and given a death sentence, but slowly – while the frantic search proceeds – a different truth starts to surface and Jahed sees his hard-earned promotion slipping gradually through his fingers.
In a bizarre and fascinating location – as oxymoronic as an empty penitentiary can be – director Javidi has set an inverse prison-escape film, where a desperate man hangs on for dear life to the very place that had imprisoned him. The labyrinthine building here has centre stage, its physical presence and the rich symbolic power of it is in front of our eyes for duration – almost overwhelming – and Hooman Behmanesh, director of photography, makes the most of the fascinating battered construction.
With its strong allegoric clues, “The Warden” suggests a reflection about some major issues like the capital punishment and the abuse of authority but it is not deeply assertive in doing so and the movie can be simply read as the crisis of a man out of his comfort zone. Jahed sees his familiar environment suddenly becoming alien and turning against him; once the puppet master, he is now trapped like one of his inmates. But the Major – whose rigid professionalism has made him emotionally unavailable – will also rediscover his human side along the way, challenged by his alter ego, the feminine character, all-round instinct and pathos, Miss Karimi.
Despite being set in the ’60, the film feels strangely far removed from present-day Iran, almost a parallel universe. Persian Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose picture adorn the walls of the prison offices, the unveiled and independent Miss Karimi, the gentle flirting with Major Jahed … all this create a pleasant sense of displacement making the rusty prison a cathedral of nostalgia in the middle of the barren Southern Iran desert.
Actor Navid Mohammadzadeh is the pillar of the movie. An odd choice, considering the big age difference between the young man and the middle-age character, he really shines in Jahed’s role. His presence is very masculine and physical from beginning to end but while the story unfolds, his representation of masculinity evolves and incorporates the emerging vulnerability and a new humanity. No doubt he is a new man at the end of the storm and it shows. The testosterone-filled prison environment is the perfect contrasting background for the beautiful Parinaz Izadyar and the very chaste romance between the two protagonists is very believable thanks to the good chemistry between the two handsome and skilled actors.
“The Warden” follows the structure of a classic manhunt thriller and the script and the direction channel the tension, guiding the gradual build-up. Despite losing some of the accumulated suspense towards the end, making the finale feel slightly rushed, “The Warden” is a very enjoyable journey with a good balance between the extremely serious themes and an understated romanticism.