Powerful presentation of moral dilemmas in Iran
- There Is No Evil review by PD
Banned from filmmaking in Iran, director Mohammad Rasoulof returns to the great moral themes that underlie all his work in this generally powerful film, or should we say films - for we get four unrelated stories here, linked only by the central theme of the death penalty and to killing in general, each of which broadcast the message (with varying degrees of subtlety) that Iran’s authoritarian regime can be opposed and resisted, in spite of the powerful influence it exerts on people’s lives. Perhaps the four tales suffer from being narratively uneven, but it's compelling viewing nonetheless.
The first episode is a perfectly balanced and crafted little jewel that, by being the most understated, is perhaps the most hard-hitting of the four, and which might have done better as the culminating final tale. It concerns a day-in-the-life of Heshmat, an average middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and an impassive face. Beautifully acted without any undue emphasis, it makes its point with a shock of recognition. The second tale, titled “She said, you can do it”, is set in a prison dorm in which a soldier has been ordered to hang a prisoner the next morning by pulling the stool out from under him, but his conscience won’t let him do it. In this highly theatrical setting, he struggles to find a way out of killing, talks to his girlfriend on the phone, trying to find someone to pull strings and transfer him out. The various moral dilemmas he faces are portrayed quite well, but then this sequence veers off into a highly improbable resolution which rather ruined it for me. The third story: “The Birthday” also involves someone involved in military service, but this time he's on a three-day leave, the action centring around his meeting his fiancee and her family. Compared with the conscientious objector of the previous episode, this segment voices a more common attitude toward following military regulations, but once again the action feels a tad forced to me. Meanwhile, one would expect the final segment, “Kiss Me,” to build on and consolidate the previous three, but it rather fails to end the film with a satisfying conclusion, as sadly it’s the weakest of the four, involving as it does a 'big secret' which, by the time we get to realise what it is, the power of the premise is somewhat dissipated.
According to Amnesty International statistics, Iran was responsible for more than half the world’s recorded executions in 2017. The number has since dropped, but the country continues to kill its citizens at alarming rates. It’s significant that Rasoulof seems so unconcerned with charges against the film’s condemned criminals. They are humans, after all. Rather than agreeing with the soldiers, the film is a challenge to all those who passively accept their role in the machine, calling on them to question the sentences they carry out — as well as those levied against their neighbours. “I refuse to kill a living thing,” pronounces Darya in the last story (played by the director’s daughter, an interesting casting choice). But is she ready for the truth? Are any of us? The truth, the film clearly understands, is more complicated than its title: There is evil in the world, and it corrupts us when we don’t take a stand. What would we do in the characters’ shoes? Intriguing stuff.
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