I couldn’t look away for the 150 minutes of Mohammad Rasoulof’s intense meditation on the death penalty, told through four stories of individuals who are part of the system of capital punishment in Iran.
Rasoulof directed two films I loved, Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) and A Man of Integrity (2017), both films that explore personal morals and actions within systems in Iran that are corrupt. One of the characters in episode two of There is No Evil, dourly states “This is Iran. There is no law, only money and nepotism.” and this underlines the themes presented by the four stories. Rasoulof has a habit of letting his stories unfold slowly and in episode one, we watch an ordinary family man Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) go about an uneventful day. He gets off night shift, watches television, squabbles with his wife, cares for his elderly mother and indulges his demanding daughter. It is only in the final, gripping scene that we realise who Heshmat is.
Episodes two, three and four explore different aspects of a singular conundrum; all Iranian men must do military service and if they follow the rules, it will last for less than two years. To get a driver license or a passport, you need to have completed service and so it is an important component of autonomy and freedom to live life. In each story, a man doing military service has been given the job of executioner at a prison and we see the repercussions for those who can’t face the task and those who do.
I won’t go into the details of each episode as it is better to watch them unfold. Particularly in the final one, it takes time to understand where the vignette is going and it is all the more suspenseful for that. There is a strong sense of place in each episode and with each one, we seem to move further and further from the impersonal bustle of urban life. The rural mountain landscape and culture of episode three is beautiful and it is hard to imagine that the oppressive tentacles of authority could reach that far.
The key characters are well-drawn and, even though we know no background or context, we come to understand not only the moral compass of each individual but also of those around them. Heshmat is the most elusive but Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) and Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr) could be three iterations of a single person, three different choices made.
It’s hard not to feel critical of a system that supports capital punishment when it must be known that the justice system is corrupt. As we saw in Ballad of a White Cow (2021), an apology for a wrongful conviction a year after someone has been executed resolves nothing. According to www.sff.org.au, Rasoulof was “inspired by the moment he saw one of his former interrogators at the bank. At first angered, [he] decided to follow his adversary around – which led him to contemplate the role of individuals in an autocratic state.” He has regularly been imprisoned and has been banned from leaving Iran or making any films. He made this film, which won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival, in secret. I hope he continues to make films.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.