Having just been to the cinema together, a mother and her daughter sit at a bus stop. It is dark. They are lit up by the artificial glow above them. The daughter signs to her mother with her hands; she signs back. They are jolly, reenacting their favorite gestures from the film. The camera is stationed across the street from them, but even framed in long shot, their camaraderie is obvious. Cars hurl past them, burning tire rubber on Tehran’s roads. It’s a lovely scene, full of care and respite, yet it’s one of the few such moments that Ballad of a White Cow, the new film by co-directors Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha, affords its central characters.
The mother and daughter in question are Mina (played by Moghadam) and Bita (Avin Poor Raoufi). Mina works in a milk factory, supervising cartons that pass her by on a conveyor belt. The woman’s downcast eyes signal an irreparable tear in the fabric of her life: Ballad of a White Cow opens a year earlier, as Mina’s husband awaits execution. She still wears black in mourning for him. Bita, who is deaf and attends a school suited to her needs, remains unaware, as her mother cannot bring herself to go beyond the placating lies she’s supplied her since his death. A meeting with a judge, who informs Mina that her husband was in fact innocent of the crime for which he was executed, upends the family’s life. Only the appearance of Reza (Alireza Sani Far), a man claiming to be an old friend of her husband’s, provides some security to Mina — but, with his insomniac eyes and haunted gait, it appears that Reza’s tireless generosity is not entirely what it seems.
Where Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil takes a broader view of the effects of capital punishment within Iranian society, Ballad of a White Cow examines the aftermath of a single case, representing opposition to the penal system in miniature. There’s an ethical analysis of power developed across the film’s first half, which is given short shrift in the second, when the first half’s slow-burning but clever narrative strategy of precisely parcelling out information is swapped for a less patient approach: a crucial fact in Ballad of a White Cow is less disclosed than spilled out into the open, complicating the directors’ throughline of rage towards the injustices of society, which is hidden behind a bureaucracy at once indifferent to people and prying about their private lives. The implications of the scene fuel the remainder of the film, and partially bifurcates its perspective. The result is that Ballad of a White Cow smooths over some details that seem integral (changes of circumstance in Mina’s employment, for instance, are explained away in seconds), and refuses to inspect Mina’s interiority.
If Ballad of a White Cow’s characterization of Mina is therefore at fault, the mechanisms by which it identifies its sympathies with her are not. The directors astutely make use of off-screen space, and a host of supplementary characters (Mina’s neighbor, her colleague, Bita’s teacher, a man in a newspaper kiosk) are heard before they are seen. This cast of acousmêtres, coupled with a staging scheme that frequently employs master shots, some of them positioned from high-angles, creates in Ballad of a White Cow a pervasive sense of always being watched, of being under constant and punitive surveillance. By pushing authority and the gazes of strangers to the periphery, Sanaeeha and Moghadam rest the film’s sympathy squarely upon Mina’s and Bita’s shoulders.
Like Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava, Ballad of a White Cow has a knack for creative and unexpected camera placements, expressive touches in staging and layered use of sound design. The harrying mood of one scene is established by lightning flashes that illumine the darkened rooms of Mina’s apartment; this comes moments before a car ride to a hospital, where the only sounds to be heard are falling rain and the windshield wipers worrying the water from the glass. But best of all is a scene between Mina and Reza, sitting on her balcony in the dark. They are backlit by light inside the flat: both characters are in the dark in each other’s presence, just as their narrative trajectories require. The brilliance of this scene, its patience and clarity, is undermined somewhat by the thudding dramatic irony that it occasions. However, it remains Ballad of a White Cow’s most beautiful visual arrangement.
There’s a sense in which Ballad of a White Cow resembles Mahnaz Mohammadi’s Son-Mother: in both films, the main characters are limited in their abilities to change their fates, hemmed in on every side by those who mean well and those with malice in their hearts. Reza, in his attempts to aid Mina, ends up compromising her agency; which is already threatened, thanks to a rather perfunctorily handled subplot involving the father of her late husband. That Mina and the women in Ballad of a White Cow exist within the tight enclosure of Iranian society is best expressed in a scene where the widow of the victim of the crime for which her husband was executed visits her. Mina opens her door and closes it at the instant of recognition, but the woman on the other side stays, having become cognizant of the mistake, and pleads for forgiveness. These two women, in similar positions, both alone, are unable to occupy the same space together. The tightly controlled despair of this scene is Ballad of a White Cow’s emotional core.