To understand Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film, There Is No Evil, it helps to know two things: filmmaking in Iran is controlled by the government, with heavy penalties to those who don’t follow the rules, and Iran is second only to China in the number of people it executes annually. The first fact helps explain why Rasoulof chose to make a feature film comprised of four short films of 30-40 minutes each—it was easier to conceal the filmmaking process from the government (Rasoulof’s conflicts with the Iranian government date back to 2010, when he was arrested for filming without a permit, and he currently is both banned from filmmaking and forbidden from leaving the country).
The second fact explains the theme which ties together the four stories told in the film—someone has to carry out those executions, and that someone is often a young man doing his mandatory military service, with no right to protest or withdraw from the duties assigned to him. It’s no small thing to be faced with the prospect of ending the life of another person, nor is carrying out such an act, no matter the circumstances, something that can be taken lightly or quickly forgotten. Seeing the characters grapple with questions of life and death, guilt and innocence, obedience and defiance, naturally raises questions in the viewer’s mind—not only what should the characters do, but what would you do if faced with similar circumstances?
The first story begins deceptively quietly, as we watch the middle-aged Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) carrying out everyday tasks: picking up his wife and daughter, cashing his paycheck, discussing the appropriate gift for an upcoming wedding, shopping for groceries, caring for his elderly mother. Everything seems so normal that you may begin to wonder if this film is going to be a slice-of-life tale about a middle-class Iranian family. Rest assured, the story is leading somewhere, to a shockingly abrupt ending demonstrating that Rasoulof knew exactly where he was headed all along.
The first segment relies primarily on visual storytelling, while the second, set among a group of young soldiers doing their mandatory military service, opens with a scene as dialogue-driven as a play. The soldiers have differing attitudes toward their current circumstances, with the attendant lack of freedom—to some, that’s just how things are, and they’re going to serve their time and then get on with their lives. Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), however, is deeply concerned about an upcoming task. He’s been ordering to carry out an execution, and really doesn’t want to go through with it, but doesn’t see a way out, either. An act of desperation turns this segment into an action thriller, then it shifts again to a sweetly romantic scene set to the tune of the Italian resistance song “Bella ciao.”
The third segment shifts the action to the countryside, where the young soldier Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) is enjoying a three-day leave by visiting his girlfriend Nana (Mahtab Servati) at her family’s farm. We see Javad immersed in water several times, and this turns out to mean something more than ordinary hygiene—he’s trying to purify himself from the guilt of an act that, although officially justifiable, is haunting him. The fourth segment has the sophisticated young Darya (Baran Rasoulof) visiting her aunt and uncle, both educated people whose choice to work as beekeepers in an isolated rural area mystifies Darya. As do many of her aunt and uncle’s choices—she’s 20 years old and has opinions about everything, and hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to appreciate the reasons others might feel differently.
Cinema has a fine old tradition of anthology films, but the form is not used so much these days outside of horror anthologies and showpiece films featuring a number of celebrity directors. Mohammad Rasoulof’s film is something else, however—each story feels like a whole film in itself, and each sheds light on the choices and actions of the characters in the other stories. Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography shines, whether the setting is urban or rural, and whether the mood is one of quiet contemplation or desperate action. There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, although Rasoulof, banned from leaving Iran, could not accept in person: instead, his daughter Baran, who appears in the fourth segment of the film, accepted for him. | Sarah Boslaugh
There Is No Evil is playing at select theatres across the United States and is also available for on-demand streaming through Kino Marquee.