Ballad of a White Cow (2021)

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Image via miff.com.au

Reminiscent of an early Asghar Farhadi film, this tense and elegant drama by partners Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghadam explores the complexities of sacrifice and atonement in contemporary Iran.

Mina (Maryam Moghadam) struggles to maintain a life and independence a year after her husband, Babak, was executed for murder. She tells her young daughter Bita (Avin Pour Raaoufi) that he was, in fact, working at the prison and has now gone “far, far away, to study.” Babak’s brother (Pouria Rahimi Sam) tries to help and she gets by with a job at a milk factory and the help of the kind wife of her landlord.

Everything changes when an unemotional government official tells her that her husband was not actually guilty and two key witnesses have now confessed to the murder. As she breaks down, he apologises but tells her it must have been God’s will. God’s will is used more than once to excuse human error, a handy way to avoid accountability. When one of the sentencing judges, Reza (Alireza Sani Far), expresses regret at the mistake and wants to give up his job, he is told that, as all of the sentencing judges made the same decision, even though it was erroneous, it must have been God’s will. You can see how systemic corruption or bias might remain unchallenged in Iran.

Reza has a need to atone and he does this by pretending to Mina that he knew her husband and owed him money. He provides her with somewhere to live and slowly, and reluctantly on his part, they become friends. He, of course, can’t do the one thing that might actually atone for his mistake – admit it to Mina – and so we watch an uneasy dance between the two as she, guileless, thinks she has found a saviour and he folds in on himself with guilt.

The white cow – a vision that Mina sees – is the innocent sacrificed; her husband, of course, but also herself, trusting of those around her and powerless to define her own fate. As a widow, she has no agency; kicked out of her accommodation because she let an unrelated man into her home, sued by her father-in-law for the blood money she is due to be paid, fired from her job for no particular reason.

The tension builds as we wait for the scales to fall from Mina’s eyes and we have plenty of time to ponder the concept of atonement – is there any way to atone for Babak’s death? The state puts a value on it of 270 million tomans as blood money, the wife of the murdered man has the power to forgive his murderer and save him from execution and Reza can provide security and friendship for a woman who has neither. Is any of it enough, though?

Sanaeeha and Moghadam let the story unfold slowly, gradually focusing in on Mina and Reza until we see the humanity and frailty in both. It makes the ending all the more powerful, albeit with a deliberate ambiguity that felt, at first like a punch pulled but, on reflection, an authentic representation of what is a complex theme. Agency, perhaps, or more sacrifice.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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