Given that the sports biopic formula often leans towards the optimistic, even in bleak circumstances, I was surprised with the downbeat tone Guy Nattiv and Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s Tatami often strikes. A strangely fitting companion piece to Michael Mann’s Ferrari, which also premiered at the Venice Film Festival, both films feature victories that feel like defeats due to external circumstances.
In Tatami, Iranian female judo fighter Leila (Arienne Mandi) blazes an exhilarating trail through the Judo World Championships. As her victories start accumulating, she and her coach Maryam (Ebrahimi pulling double duty) receive an ultimatum from the Islamic Republic: With the likely scenario of her facing an Israeli judo fighter in the final round, should she advance, Leila is to drop out of the competition. Leila, though, is a fighter not only on the titular tatamis, but in life too. And so ensues a night of escalating tensions — not simply of loss or victory in the matches, but with the lives of Leila and Maryam and their families at stake.
Tatami takes place over the course of one night and when it remains faithful to this approach, it excels. As the camera effectively weaves in and out between practice rooms and hovers around corridors and spaces, the increased pressure facing Leila and Maryam is felt. Cinematographer Todd Martin and editor Yuval Orr keep the film fresh and exciting as the film moves to the tatamis with each cut to the arms, feet, and faces of the fighters.
By and large the film succeeds at carrying this intense momentum, even managing to keep this tension when shifting to Leila checking in with her family after a victory or Maryam dealing with unseen government threats. The film unfortunately deflates slightly during the few flashbacks, which serve a purpose but feel strangely inserted.
For all the intensity of the judo matches and ratcheting tensions of their predicament, the essential core of the film is the plight of these two women. Mandi plays Leila to perfection as a boiling pot of rage whose fiery energy invests you in her determination to see things through. And Ebrahimi is heartbreaking as the conflicted mentor who feels the burden of everyone tearing her in their direction.
While Tatami does indulge in the occasional sports film cliché, the unapologetic way in which the film makes these women’s rage and fight back makes the film raw, fresh and essential viewing.