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TIFF 2023: After the Fire, Achilles, The Queen of My Dreams

When the death of someone by brutal policing becomes a national issue, we don’t often get a sense of how their family has privately been impacted. Loved ones of the deceased may speak out behind news podiums, but that can only be the surface of what they’re experiencing. “After the Fire,” an exceptional directorial debut from writer/director Mehdi Fikri, bases its fictional drama on the type of family who must accept that their grief is now a political moment. 

“After the Fire” is a political thriller with an intimate lens, focusing on an immigrant family in Paris whose 25-year-old brother and son, Karim, is killed by brutal policing. The authorities try to say that it was an epileptic fit, but looking at his body says otherwise. This lie creates a massive media circus in which sister Malika (Camélia Jordan) takes the spokesperson role at the center. In the carefully calibrated and paced scenes, she has to learn public speaking and push an investigation when the police cannot be trusted. Along with lawyers and a media-savvy consultant, the family can get justice if they can play such an intense, draining, and dangerous game. 

The family wants to bury Karim's body as soon as possible, but they have to wait for the investigation to be done. This gives the movie a personal pain that works on a larger scale as the family navigates this unfathomable stress. Brother Driss (Sofiane Zermani) becomes more aggressive to the police, making him a target, while the younger sister, Nour (Sonia Faidi), watches it all with hesitation. Especially in Jordana’s brilliant performance, you can see the wear this enacts on someone, regardless of the public fervor. If the family decides to give up, they let down activists; if they keep pushing against the police in the media, such corrupt adversaries could topple onto them. 

Mikri’s filmmaking is brilliant and charged, and so savvy about depicting an unfathomable experience. When Malika hears her brother will die soon at the hospital, she tries to get inside. A crowd is already building, one of many that will rally around her family but also bring their destructive intensity to such an injustice. When the news of his passing arrives at that moment, the camera shows her face and her devastating reaction just long enough before the shouting crowd takes over the attention. Mikri then depicts the riots that follow with a slow drone shot over the Strasbourg neighborhoods now packed with fire and fighting. 

“After the Fire” is full of such touches and emotional acuity, and it doesn’t lose that savviness as its story twists and embraces gray areas. But throughout, the movie maintains an allegiance to the family's POV. “After the Fire” illuminates the stories of the mourning families who need privacy, but whose pain and sacrifice become, unfortunately, paramount for justice to be served. 

There is a compelling frustration to the muted Iranian film “Achilles,” which features a gripping lead performance by Mirsaeed Molavian. As an orthotist at a malnourished hospital, he picks at his giant beard, which is one of the ways he seems to conceal his facial expressions, as much as his fiery eyes reveal his anger. Achilles is his name, and his background on why he is at this hospital, a collection of gray walls and leaky infrastructure, is only slightly doled out by this contemplative script from writer/director Farhad Delaram. But then Achilles meets a woman named Hedieh (Behdokt Valian), who is handcuffed to her hospital bed. She complains about the walls speaking to her. She has been punching them. In time, he also learns of her political prisoner history, and with recent flashes of his own persecution, he decides to help her. Achilles helps her break out of this captivity, their journey only making them more vulnerable to a system they are disillusioned with. 

“Achilles” has a lot on its mind as it becomes a type of melancholic road trip between Achilles and Hedieh, with whom he shares an ideological connection (Delaram’s editing even has his body overlap into hers during one walking scene, among other visual connections). They are a strong duo despite their quiet weariness. And in making these parallels while slowly revealing who Achilles is, the movie becomes more and more gripping. Delaram matches graceful storytelling with intentionally hazy storytelling, as both his characters head to an unknown but with a purpose. “Achilles” gets its greatest gut punch in its finale, a moment that changes the frustration from before into desperate, necessary action. The film is dedicated to “the people of Iran who can no longer tolerate the walls.” 

Sharmila Tagore, the legendary Indian actress, plays a significant role in “The Queen of My Dreams,” though her modern self does not appear in it. It’s her on-screen work in the 1969 film “Aradhana,” a romance co-starring Rajesh Khanna, shown throughout this generations-hopping, brightly colored comedy from debut writer/director Fawzia Mirza. Tagore and “Aradhana” are one of many ways that Azra, a queer grad student (played by Amrit Kaur), is bonded with her mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha of “Polite Society”). But there are many ways in which they do not see eye-to-eye, and which has created a gulf between them as Azra has gotten older. 

It's the year 1999. After Azra’s father Hassan (Hamza Haq) dies from a heart attack, Azra ventures from Canada to Pakistan to grieve but also to welcome us to massive flashbacks. With a jump back to 1969 in the first act, the writer/director works to show Azra and Mariam they aren’t that different, nudged by how Kaur then plays her mother in her more mischievous, less conservative years. Her mother also had a rebellious streak, a difficult time with her own mother, and an independent way of finding love. (It’s also the story of how Mariam met her husband Hassan, also played by Hamza Haq.) Throughout, “Aradhana” and Tagore’s face are used as a chorus for this movie’s romanticism, as it is a movie that Mariam loved, which she then passed onto Azra after they moved to Nova Scotia in the late '80s. The movie then retraces how Mariam (played now by Bucha) struggled to fit in these new predominantly white environs while raising budding rebel Azra and selling Tupperware. 

“The Queen of My Dreams” is the kind of movie that gains its charisma from the inspiration and intent it wears on its sleeve. It’s not just the warm love it has for Sharmila Tagore, or Bollywood, or its mission to recognize the experiences of multiple generations of women. And yet, something from the storytelling holds it back from bursting off the screen as much as it wants to or gaining the emotional force it desires. Maybe it’s how the plotting focuses on the mother’s story before we deeply get to know Azra, making its empathy feel incomplete as the story is unfolding. But the film remains pleasing across its different decades and drawn similarities, its emotional story emboldened by the color palette of a shelf full of saris.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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