Every now and then I watch a film that packs such an emotional punch that I am left feeling devastated as the credits roll. In the past year, there have been a few – The Lobster, Dogtooth, Magical Girl, Rhino Season and The Past are some that come to mind – and last night Manuscripts Don’t Burn was added to that list. That three of these films are from Iran is not coincidental, I think. Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a riveting and unvarnished indictment of the politics of today’s Iran.
I don’t know much about Iran. I know there was a Shah and a corrupt repressive regime, a revolution and then the establishment of a conservative and repressive Islamic republic. I know that people in present-day Iran can’t speak freely, that art and film is censored and that Sharia law is used to justify anything. In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, this reality is played out with a chilling indifference as we see the people who silence intellectuals and use their power for their own ends.
We see Khosrow and Morteza, two ordinary men whose job is to torture and kill the intellectuals and writers the regime want to suppress. We see the mundanity of their lives, the problems they have, their lack of choices. Khosrow has a sick child and he needs money for his surgery, his telephone calls to his wife show how they use Sharia and Islam to rationalise their choices and accept their limitations. We also see several aging writers, unable to publish their works and unsure of who to trust. Kasra has a hidden, unpublished memoir that details atrocities of the past and he tries to use this to bargain for the freedom to leave Iran. The lives of all men intersect and the implications of the narrative are slowly revealed to us.
There is a bleached quality to this film, all the colours are subdued and there is beauty in the most mundane details – a blanket draped across a car to dry, a blue rope tying a young boy to a tree, a shaft of light illuminating the smoke from a cigarette. There is no poetry here though, this is unflinching and inescapable reality, based on a variety of real events from the past decades. Apparently the filming was done in secret, with the exteriors in Iran and the interiors on a set in Germany. No cast or crew are listed, to protect them from retaliation.
What is most chilling is to see how authority and law and religion can be used to justify self-interest and rationalise atrocity. If you want to read a more knowledgeable review of this film, have a look at Roger Ebert’s which gives the context of this film within Iranian cinema and explains the significance of the title.
Bechdel test – fail