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A well-oiled repressive state makes its citizens complicit in the crushing of dissent, a moral weight explored with exquisite, patient mastery in Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s anthology film “There Is No Evil.” Four whirlpool-like stories of emotional dread surrounding the death penalty, they also reinforce the pulsing humanism in this autocratic country’s most fiercely committed storytellers.
Of course, you have to be fiercely committed to the power of film if to make one might put you behind bars. First detained in 2010 (along with celebrated director and occasional collaborator Jafar Panahi), Rasolouf has yet to serve his one-year prison sentence for the charge of making anti-government propaganda. But he’s also been under a 20-year filmmaking ban since 2017 — when his Cannes-feted clerical critique “A Man of Integrity” angered the regime — and is forbidden from leaving the country. To make “There Is No Evil,” therefore, Rasolouf used a strategic mix of production subterfuge and canny location choices.
The resulting film, however — which took the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, and is unsurprisingly banned in Iran — betrays no signs of something furtively made, like a guerrilla-style missive. In its elegantly photographed, classically told and acted mix of domestic scenes, bucolic settings, and character drama, it could sit right alongside a Hollywood epic or arthouse drama on a double bill. But when juxtaposed against a history of Iranian cinema that has often relied on child-centric allegory and non-specific narrative to make its societal critiques, “There Is No Evil” practically blisters with the intensity of specifically living in Iran as it exists now, as a state once believed to carry out the most executions of any country outside China.
That intensity is there in the occasionally trancing stare of the first story’s working husband and dad Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) as he punches out of his high-security job. We begin to sense that his life of unassuming domesticity — picking up his wife and daughter, shopping, chores, a mom visit, a mall dinner with the family — is no small bulwark against the realities of the other part of his day. That tension is also there, more openly, in the frightful eyes of anxious guard Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), the protagonist of the second tale, “She Said ‘You Can Do It.’” Pouya is one of six military conscripts in a prison’s cramped sleeping quarters, desperate to avoid an act he’s sure will singe his soul: executing another human being. He hashes out various escape plans with his bunkmates, who have varying thoughts about Pouya’s rattled conscience regarding personal responsibility.
Iran’s enforced military service for young men is also the background of the soldier seen making his way to a secluded farmhouse in the third tale, “Birthday,” filmed with an eye for sylvan beauty and rustic melancholy by the cinematographer for all the stories, Ashkan Ashkani. Ostensibly on a three-day leave to celebrate the birthday of his fiancée Nana (Mahtab Servati) with her family, Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) must also contend with the family’s grief over the recent death of their close friend. What plays out may feel deliberately engineered if one were to nitpick about plot, but in keeping with the movie’s themes of choice and consequence, it still packs a punch.
The last segment, “Kiss Me,” concerns the momentous visit a young medical student named Darya (Baran Rasoulof, the director’s daughter) makes to older beekeeping couple Barham (Mohammad Seddighimehr) and Zaman (Jila Shahi), who live quietly in a remote, dusty, sparsely populated area. In its simmering mix of vague foreboding and the richness of human connection, it’s a fitting conclusion, but particularly for how its big reveal acts as a defining finale for all the secretly filmed tales that make up “There Is No Evil”: stressing the long-term cost a tyrannical country’s legacy of capital punishment will have on how its people view love and security.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.