Thursday, May 13, 2021

Rasoulof’s There is No Evil

Iran does not merely have a death penalty. The nation has a culture of death that permeates ordinary citizens’ lives. Such is the contention of the new thematically-related anthology film from Mohammad Rasoulof, the Iranian filmmaker who has been convicted of “endangering national security” and “spreading propaganda.” The Islamist regime has banned him from filmmaking for life, just like Jafar Panahi, but, just like Jafar Panahi (a past creative collaborator), he has not let that stop him from writing and directing new films. Rasoulof is indeed critical of Iran’s executions, but his is also sympathetic to the conscripted soldiers who are often forced to carry out death sentences throughout There is No Evil, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

The first story, “There is No Evil,” would probably work better if viewers were not aware of the film’s overall theme while watching it. It appears to be an everyday slice-of-life story about Heshmat and his family, but it ends with a bitter kick that sets the tone for the next installment.

What follows in “She Said, ‘You Can Do It’” will be a long night of the soul for Pouya, a draftee who has recently been posted to a military prison. He has been ordered to execute a prisoner at dawn, but the very thought of it makes him sick to his stomach. Yet, he must finish his mandatory service in good standing if he is to have a life with his fiancée. Initially, “She Said” feels like a Persian take on the protest play
The Brig, but it takes a wild, almost surreal turn. What happens is almost shocking, but it is definitely bold, take-no-prisoners (so to speak) filmmaking.

Based on the fact Javad has a three-day pass, we can assume his conscience did not trouble him in the way Pouya’s did in “Birthday.” He has come to surprise his girlfriend (and hopefully fiancée) on her special day, but he finds household is in mourning. He also discovers it is a small world after all.

In a way, “Kiss Me” could be like a thematic sequel to “She Said.” Out in the countryside (strikingly lensed by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani), Bahram’s lives way-off-the-grid with his wife Zaman, who has more of a legal footprint. They have invited Darya, the daughter of a family friend, to stay with them for a week, in order to reveal a secret that affects them all, while there is still time.

No Evil
is a masterful film that shows how corruption and guilt from Iran’s unjust justice system seeps into every corner of society. It also shows the nation’s great social and geographical diversity. Arguably, this could be considered the “Great Iranian Social Issue Film,” but the regime would surely disagree.

Rasoulof offers a biting critique of Iran’s revolving door-gallows, but his characters are so compelling, viewers will often forget about the message and just find them engrossed in the drama. The humanistic performances of Mohammad Seddighimehr and Jila Shahi as Bahram and Zaman are especially relatable. They really drive home the human cost of the regime’s policies and practices.

This is a major film from a critically important filmmaker. We often take for granted the right of free expression. Worse, some among us seek to curtail it for the sake of groupthink ideologies. Rasoulof puts them to shame by producing bold protests against censorship and authoritarianism like this film and
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (which really put him on the regime’s verboten list). Despite the difficult circumstances under which it was produced, There is No Evil is a work of great artistic merit that offers a bold yet soft-spoken challenge to an oppressive system. Very highly recommended, it opens tomorrow (5/14) at Film Forum.