“I just wanted three days off.” That’s the reason Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), who is serving an obligatory 2-year term in the Iranian army, gives for committing an act—one might say, the “original sin”—that will cause Na’na (Mahtab Servati), who loves Javad and in turn is the love of his life, to hang him in effigy and walk away. Javad’s tragic story (“The Birthday”) is the third of four, each following one man, that make up this extraordinary exploration of the ethics of committing an act some might understand as evil—and the consequences of doing so, or not doing so.
Iranian director and writer Mohammad Rasoulof has talents for mystery (the narrative and moral links among the episodes are not obvious), subtlety, the unexpected, and a good story, well told. This, his latest exploration into the morality of the common man, won the Golden Bear (Best Film) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. Because it was filmed in secret and smuggled out of the country, it would never have been submitted by Iran for the Oscar for Best International Feature.
The banality of Javad’s explanation for committing “the act” is also front and center in the first episode, which opens with an extended metaphor: Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) getting into his car in a basement parking lot and navigating a chiaroscuro circular ramp (the round of life, Dante’s circles of hell) to the surface. Although Heshmat is presented with no obvious moral dilemma, his work has made him into something of a cipher, a man drained of agency and of the emotions that normally attend to a life. He’s kind and considerate, a decent family man who dutifully colors his acerbic wife’s greying hair—but his job has hollowed him out; he’s disturbed enough by what he does that he has his wife pick up the blood money that is his paycheck.
Episodes 2 and 4 take up the consequences of not doing the act. Episode 2 (titled “You can do it”) opens in a claustrophobic bunk room—it takes place almost entirely at night—shared by a half dozen Iranian soldiers, all part of a unit whose task it is to carry out a critical order. In a tense scene reminiscent of the debate among jurors in “12 Angry Men” (film, 1957), the soldiers articulate a variety of ways of evaluating the moral dilemma in which they are caught: you could pay someone else in the unit to do it for you; you could pull strings with friends and family to get out of it; it’s your job, so you just do it; if you don’t do it, someone else will, and there will be serious consequences for you and your family; don’t be a “mama’s boy”—and so on.
It’s new recruit Pouya’s (Kaveh Ahangar) decision to make, and he does so in dramatic fashion, producing a long and exciting sequence that culminates in a joyous duet of “Bella Ciao,” the anthem of the anti-Fascist Italian partisans, now an international liberation hymn, and here also a nod to the authorities who have forced the bunk room soldiers to do the dirty work of the state. Those authorities never physically appear in the film; their morality—or immorality—is a given. It’s the ethical dilemma of those at the bottom, who are simply required to act, that is at issue—the morality of the ordinary man.
Pouya’s choice seems to have no consequences—unless, that is, one considers the possible links between his narrative and Bahram’s, which is Episode 4. As in Pouya’s story, “Bella Ciao” appears, though here only as a faint instrumental, a small part of the soundtrack. More importantly, Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr)—who could, conceivably, be a mature Pouya—lives in isolation, off the grid, in a remote, mountainous area of Iran, perhaps in political exile. Ashkan Ashkani ‘s cinematography captures an undulating and intimidating landscape. We learn Bahram’s circumstances from the questioning of Darya (Baran Rasoulof, the director’s daughter), his niece visiting from outside Iran. Bahram lacks a driver’s license (one consequence of not doing the job, mentioned in the earlier bunk room scene) and, like Pouya, is a pacifist, feeding rather than shooting a wolf that has eaten his chickens. “The past is the past,” note the lyrics from the song “Kiss Me,” but for Bahram, the past—his decision not to participate—is very much his present.
Although Rasoulof’s undertaking is by its nature didactic, the complexity and subtlety of his writing and directing mostly overcome the limitations presented by the commitment to moralize.
Although Rasoulof’s undertaking is by its nature didactic, the complexity and subtlety of his writing and directing mostly overcome the limitations presented by the commitment to moralize. Even so, he can be unnecessarily preachy (when Javad is lectured on how he should have been able to avoid military service); obvious (Heshmat, home from work, showering, washing away the sins of the day in the “out-out-damned-spot” scene); obscure (just what is the point of Bahram trying to get Darya to kill the wolf?); even inappropriately titillating (Bahram’s relationship with Darya). Rasoulof could have taken a few minutes off a very long film by leaving some of these scenes on the proverbial cutting room floor.
“There is No Evil” nonetheless is a stunning achievement. Filmed by a director already under arrest and sentenced to prison for his prior filmmaking, it compellingly captures not just an ethical conundrum, but the agony of a people, and a nation, at a moral crossroads.
Date: 2020 (US release 2021)
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Starring: Mohammad Valizadegan, Mahtab Servati, Ehsan Mirhosseini, Kaveh Ahangar, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Baran Rasoulof
Country: Germany/Iran/Czech Republic
Languages: Persian, German
Runtime: 151 minutes
Other Awards: Won: Best Film – Golden Bear, Berlin International Film Festival 2020; 14 other wins and 5 other nominations
Availability: At selected theaters and streaming through theater sites by going through the Kino Lorber website to theater sites, such as the Laemmle, or until June 10, through the UCLA Film Archive.