Films about capital punishment often receive the most declamatory adjectives: powerful, urgent and important. This kind of reception flattens out the specificities of the work in question, and ignores context. The observations of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, for instance, are not the same as those of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing, or those of Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, although all three centrally invoke the iniquities of the death penalty. In the context of Iran, Mehrdad Oskouei’s recent documentary Sunless Shadows demonstrates the spectre-like quality of the death penalty, discussed by teenage girls and young women in a juvenile detention center. But step beyond the carceral context and the death penalty and its attendent traumas are not far behind. This is the analysis Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil provides: that Iran’s use of capital punishment reverberates beyond the walls of its prisons, and permeates every layer of the society.
Rasoulof’s film, like Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, is split into four sections — “There Is No Evil,” “She Said: ‘You Can Do It,’” “Birthday” and “Kiss Me” — partly to demonstrate the elasticity and wide applicability of the film’s theme, but also out of necessity: the director is currently under house arrest after a decade of antagonism from the authorities in Iran, and so he had to film There Is No Evil in fits and starts, bits and pieces. (It’s in much the same way that Jafar Panahi has been able to make his recent films, despite a 20-year filmmaking ban being imposed on him.)
Each section has a different cast, setting, color palette and stylistic temperature. “There Is No Evil,” the best of the four, concerns Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), a prison guard who, after a shift, drives around Tehran’s greyish-brown streets, picks up his wife, who draws his salary, and then his daughter; they shop and make arrangements for a friend’s wedding, they visit his mother-in-law and then have dinner before falling asleep — by all accounts, an ordinary day. But Heshmat’s moral exhaustion begins to signal itself beneath his weary exterior, particularly in the section’s lighting scheme. Red and green lights are everywhere Heshmat goes: the flashing crosses on the exterior of a pharmacy; the green light of his alarm clock in the morning; the alternating reds and greens of traffic lights; the final, job-related light change, which snaps the character’s relation to the theme in place with a jolting shock. The shot of Heshmat’s car absolutely still before a green traffic light communicates all it needs to about the effects of his job on his family’s quotidian existence, teased out via Rasoulof’s patient staging and the subdued, buried emotion of Mirhosseini’s performance.
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Less successful but more direct is “She Said: ‘You Can Do It,’” about Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), a conscripted soldier whose opposition to carrying out an execution sets him in conflict with his bunkmates, who then enacts a daring escape. The early minutes are a contextualizing chamber drama, as Pouya and his fellow conscripts debate the ethics of his position, and provide key details about Iranian national service, consequences for non-completion and how executions factor in their duties. While this section evokes the double-bind of Pouya’s position, his attempt to exculpate his own guilt while allowing one of his colleagues to do the job for him, the considerate exposition gets lost during his high-wire escape act, filmed for the most part in shaky sequence shots through the murky, cold-hued halls of the prison, accompanied by a brisk, pulsating percussive score. But Ahangar strains to hit the notes of anxious desperation the scenes require of him, and as he mounts his get away, he looks too in control and assured for someone following vague, make-shift instructions on one hand and improvising wildly on the other.
Much better is “Birthday,” which moves the setting out from the city to the countryside. Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), another conscript, is on three-day leave from his post, visiting his girlfriend Nana (Mahtab Servati) for her birthday, during which he intends to propose. Her family’s house, secluded in the vertiginous landscape, provides Rasoulof’s camera with the idea conditions for a dramaturgy that shifts between intimate scenes of the lovers together (filmed in close-ups with long lenses) and scenes captured in wide-angle long shots, distancing the characters as the theme’s stricture makes itself apparent in the scenario. Lovely moments, like a shot of Javad lying supine while Nana dots his face with pomegranate seeds, vie with the tremulous melodrama of this section’s disclosures — occasioning a close-up of a hand tightening around a rock that induces a precise sense of panic. “Birthday” lays bare the illusion of innocence and duty in a society bound together by the murder of its prisoners, in the process punishing Javad for the impersonality with which he approaches his task.
“Kiss Me,” conversely, demonstrates the personal effects of non-compliance. Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr), a rural doctor, welcomes his niece, Darya (Baran Rasoulof), a medical student based in Germany, for a visit. An early phone call with Darya’s father, Bahram’s brother, clues the audience in on the fact that there’s a design at work in her trip, details of which are incrementally spelled out as the section draws to its, and the film’s, conclusion. Bahram often drives the steep and dipping roads to a hilltop, the only place Darya can find service on her phone, a conceit that mirrors Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us — except in Kiarostami’s film, this is played for comedic effect, whereas here, Darya’s phone calls betray a disguised antipathy about her surroundings, an antipathy that will intensify when her family’s motivations emerge. “Kiss Me” yields an unwieldy menagerie of animal metaphors. A snake, bees, chickens, wolves and a fox are all employed rhetorically to underscore the uneasy equilibrium of life, an equilibrium tipped by a society that decides whose lives are worth living and whose aren’t. Like the first section, “Kiss Me” guards its variation on the theme at first, dropping thoughtful hints as to where the story may arrive. But its exact shape disappoints: it gives itself too much to do in too short a running time, and rests on a pair of performances that aren’t quite up to each other, a mismatch that could be productive if the section’s figurative emphases weren’t cancelling out its ambiguities. “Kiss Me” doesn’t hold a candle to “There Is No Evil” or “Birthday.”
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The exacting and caustic critique of There Is No Evil ultimately trains its attention on the way that subjects within Iranian society are forced to become perpetrators, exploring the consequences of judicially-sanctioned murder, and the dramas of conscience that follow from acquiescence or resistance to the regime that orders it. The interconnectedness of the stories (a line spoken in the second section becomes a suggestion of context in the fourth, for instance) is skillfully arranged, but the film’s four parts aren’t equally well-staged, nor are its actors all as expressively astute as one another. There Is No Evil’s artistry is inconsistent, but its argument is undeniable.