Most of the outside world has seen little of Iran. Our limited yet enduring image of its history and politics is based on snapshot footage of its leaders, its conflicts, and glossy cable news graphics depicting maps of its nuclear sites. We’re aware of its oligarchical regime’s approach to, and impact on the world around it, but rarely are we afforded the opportunity to see how its authoritarian culture truly affects its citizens; how it has the potential to intertwine with their lives in a shrouded yet disturbing and ultimately life-changing manner.
Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof has long sought to shed light on how society functions in his home country, utilising character-driven stories built upon the basic elements of human emotion and moral ambiguity. Having previously faced prison time and a ban from leaving the country due to his “propaganda”, it is safe to say that the Iranian government has never been all that fond of Rasoulof’s work.
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Yet even now, with an active two-year ban from filmmaking hanging over him, Rasoulof has produced a secret of his own in the form of There Is No Evil, a mesmerising anthology divided between the lives of four regular Iranian men afflicted by a common choke hold: the death penalty.
Still legal and deployed often in Iran, the death penalty remains a sensitive topic, both at home and abroad. It has been covered in Hollywood on several occasions, but almost always from the point of view of those condemned to die and the people around them, whether they be fellow inmates, prison guards, or family members trying to save them.
What sets There Is No Evil apart is Rasoulof’s decision to focus on the role of the executioner, a far more common and systematic position in Iran, due to both the number of criminals put to death and its use of enlisted men – either randomly assigned or volunteers – to carry out many of the hangings. Like all great cinematic villains, however, the act of execution itself barely features, with Rasoulof demonstrating a masterclass in subtle writing and nuanced, multi-faceted direction.
Whether they be a working man providing for his middle class family, a soldier visiting his girlfriend on his day off, or a stricken farmer trying to connect with his past, each character is diligently fleshed out. The resulting payoff of their jarring place in society and the overwhelming pain it inflicts on them and the people they’re connected to is made all the more powerful by the time Rasoulof invests in the alarmingly everyday nature of their moral struggle.
Switching effortlessly between themes of love, sacrifice, and redemption, with a prison break drama thrown in for good measure, Rasoulof shows off his aesthetically appealing directorial style and ability to get the most out of every frame. The themes of each chapter play out as much through Rasoulof and cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani ‘s striking imagery and gorgeous wide shots as they do the concise dialogue and character development. Rasoulof’s use of close up is particularly effective, with words set aside for unheard, but hauntingly visible thoughts.
Aiding him is a beautifully raw selection of performances. Each “lead” brings something different to the table, from the mentally exhausted quality of Ehsan Mirhosseini to the frantic, wide-eyed gusto of Kaveh Ahangar. The male role in Iranian society and the heavy burden carried by the executioners may be the core focus, but the formidable presence of the women they are fighting or sacrificing themselves for provides a crucial alternative perspective throughout each chapter, with Mahtab Servati the standout of several scene-stealing turns.
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Suffering for one’s art may have decreased dramatically in extremity across the modern world, but There Is No Evil and the work of Mohammad Rasoulof are timely reminders that in some regions artistic repression is yet to have the stool kicked from under it.
Vancouver International Film Festival runs from 24th September to 7th October 2020. You can find our coverage of VIFF here.