There Is No Evil (Review): Punishment, Power and Pathos
There Is No Evil is Mohammad Rasoulof’s enthralling examination of the impact of the death penalty on ordinary people in Iran; last year’s Golden Bear winner.
Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil (the original Persian title translates literally as ‘Satan Doesn’t Exist’) is a Golden Bear-winning anthology film comprised of four vignettes. The stories are not linked via characters (à la Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle), storytelling style (Boccaccio ’70) or by location (Four Rooms), but rather by their exploration of the impact of the death penalty on ordinary Iranians. Four different casts, four different settings and a myriad of themes are on display, but everything is given cohesion by the common idea at the centre. Nobody has strange desires, an unusual occupation, or an odd living situation – these are four authentic stories that accurately depict people from four ordinary strata in modern Iranian society.
Like many daring films to come from Iran in the past two decades, the film was shot digitally in a modest, clandestine production and literally smuggled out of the country (though its backstory is perhaps not as colourful as Jafar Panahi sending a film across borders on a USB stick hidden in a cake!). Rasoulof has repeatedly been arrested and charged by the state for making his dissenting voice heard, but the fearless filmmaker seems to be completely undeterred. There Is No Evil was the third Iranian film in ten years, after Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, to win the top prize in Berlin.
The film begins in a dank underground car park, one of two visible lights flickering, as two men carry a large bag to a car boot. They say it contains a rice ration, but the appearance of the bag implies that a corpse might possibly be inside – is this a red herring or is this relevant? This episode follows Heshmat, a normal father-of-one, probably in his thirties, and his wife Razieh, across their ordinary yet stressful day-to-day life. The focused, serious look on his face communicates that he has something very important and possibly daunting in the days ahead. Towards the end, he presses a button, and there’s a quick cut to a platform dropping, with legs and feet falling and swinging, and urine running down said legs. Is Heshmat fazed by the contents of his chosen calling? We never find out.
The second episode centres on a young man who is forced to act as an executioner by virtue of it being a part of his military service. He is sickened by the prospect of putting another person to death, and even knowing the nature of the crime committed will not sway him. He knows that deserting his duty will significantly damage his prospects, but he is strongly committed to getting out of it. It’s a far more intense vignette than the first, featuring more frequent cuts and more kinetic camerawork, but it is somewhat compromised by a score that is trying too hard to convey this intensity. The images are adequate – one of my favourite things about most Iranian cinema is its focus on storytelling and acting to elicit an emotional response, rather than relying on easier manipulative techniques, but this vignette departs from that technical simplicity by using an overwrought score that does not heighten or compliment what’s on screen. Despite that, it is an otherwise well-constructed episode, and I’m probably nitpicking.
The second and third vignettes focus each on a young man agonising – in the former, for what he is supposed to do in the near future, and in the latter, for what he has done. Whether you’re surrounded by other servicemen or by close family, you’re going to be subjected to judgment and peer pressure. I love how such stubborn resolve is depicted – in so many films people are swayed easily to progress the story a certain way, but here we feel that their convictions are real, regardless of how rational they are. Rationality doesn’t matter when you are faced with the prospect of putting another person to death – emotion takes over.
When we think of Iran’s modern national cinema, we think of intimate digital photography, largely static camerawork, lots of scenes of people driving, and very little non-diegetic music or score. This naturalism forces the emphasis on the actors’ performances and means that editing and flashy imagery are seldom used to cover for poor storytelling. Everything is competently if not extravagantly shot, and I love the contrast between the way the city’s bustle and quiet pastoral lifestyles look on screen. The music is a bit excessive in the second and fourth stories, and I think the film would have been better without it. Nothing compares to the effect of a silent fade to black, or sharp, rapping footsteps when you are creating realism.
The Iran shown in the film is a nominally religious country where, despite its strict laws and militaristic governance, the general populace are normal people who are well-meaning yet not without vice, and there is clear discordance between the ideology of the law set by the regime and the ordinary people of the country. The film does not give a voice to those who are facing the death penalty, only those that are affected via family, their occupation or by ‘duty’. Everyone is forced to confront the idea that, so long as it’s in place, someone will always have to enforce it. It’s not easy to kill someone that hasn’t wronged you personally (or who you may even sympathise or empathise with), and if you do not know what a person is being punished for, this can make it easier or harder to carry out, depending on who’s enforcing punishment.
The fourth vignette looks at cultural clash as a young lady studying in Germany visits her uncle in rural Iran. The idea of killing is also explored through her reluctance to learn to use a gun to fend off vermin preying on her uncle’s livestock, as her urban sensibilities are challenged in an unfamiliar, tougher environment. It is the longest segment, at over 40 minutes, and perhaps the most complex plot-wise, but the plot unfolds delicately and naturally. If you believe that from every scene you should learn something new about the characters, you’re in luck, for everything builds upon what has previously been established in a believable manner. In fact, even the sequencing of the four stories feels perfect.
Regardless of your views on the death penalty, it is undeniably a complicated topic with lots of nuance, and the prospect of actually having to carry out the punishment won’t often cross our minds. Rasoulof is wise to use an anthology format to tackle the subject, because it enables him to centre different perspectives and illustrate the varying impacts it has on people involved with it. Most characters are sympathetic, and despite the short length of each vignette, somehow the creation of moral nuance seems effortless. My favourite thing about the final story is that it has perhaps the most nuanced protagonist of all – a man whose decisions we may not necessarily agree with, but we can certainly understand his motivations given his complex moral predicament.
Rasoulof brilliantly shows us the nuances of people that are faced immediately with grave matters, and the way in which this can affect our rationality. While the central focus is the death penalty, the film is about much more than just that – grief, national service, bureaucracy, regret, family and trust are all explored over the course of two and a half hours. Despite a slight overreliance on music to elicit emotion, There Is No Evil is a powerful, effective film that I strongly urge you to see. For what it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in performances, intrigue and dialogue. Gripping, challenging stuff.
There Is No Evil will be released in cinemas and on digital platforms in the UK on December 3, 2021.
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