The Joy and the Darkness of ‘The Charmer’

In director Milad Alami’s “The Charmer,” Esmail feels the most comfortable with Sara, but his dark past lies just below the surface. (Photo: Film Movement)

“The Charmer,” the heartbreaking directorial debut from Iran-born filmmaker Milad Alami and Fresno Filmworks’ selection for its March 8 screening, captures with stunning realism the agony experienced by many immigrants struggling to find their place in a new land. Unlike some films that may comically deal with the topic of marrying to become a citizen, “The Charmer” has a dark underbelly.

The audience receives a shocking jolt in the first few minutes, but our questions are left unanswered as we begin to follow Esmail, a handsome, stylish smooth-operator who frequents Danish bars in search of a lover who might provide the key to his becoming a Danish citizen. On the surface, life appears good for Esmail; he sleeps with women in their luxurious apartments and attends summer parties at gorgeous estates. We admire his seemingly idyllic life until we realize it belies the truth of his existence. He looks dashing in his well-cut suit, but it is his only suit. He insists on sleeping with women at their apartments, because he lives in a single room in a hostel for immigrants. Ironically, the man without a permanent home works by day as a laborer for a moving company. Esmail’s entire future hinges precariously on his ability to marry a Danish citizen.

But this is not merely a story about an immigrant searching for a home in the world. Something dark lurks in Esmail’s past. We see him skyping with family at a public internet space, yet we never see who is at the other end of that video connection. He sends money back to Iran, yet slowly distances himself from his family back home, as if the reminder of them is too painful.

When he meets Sara, whose mother is a well-known Persian singer and a respected member of the Iranian ex-pat community, his dreams are given new life. Sara is beautiful and sexy, but she is also immediately on to Esmail’s game. That does not stop her from bringing him into her life, however, from the Persian party he attends to dinner with her mother at their home. Esmail is happy when he is with Sara, and we cannot help but root for him to fall in love, marry, and earn the legal right to remain in Denmark.

However, this is not simply the story of a charming immigrant hoping to build a better life for himself; there is mystery bubbling beneath the surface. We can see the darkness and the pain in Esmail’s gaze. Something haunts him and as the film makes its metamorphosis into a thriller. We are left to grasp at the the possibilities foreshadowed by earlier events.

We must ask ourselves: Is Esmail a victim of the desperation experienced by so many immigrants, or is he a dishonest manipulator, casually using women for his personal gain? The answer to that question is complex, and this many-layered story forces us to make judgments about this, at times, seemingly fragile man. Nothing prepares us for the ending, though, and it is the ending which gives “The Charmer” the sort of depth that will leave us thinking about it long after we leave The Tower Theatre.

Cindy Peters Duzi serves on the Filmworks board as venue director, and she teaches high school English. She blogs about the current cinema on her Instagram.