Maybe you don’t go to Iranian cinema for nail-biting action and suspense. But that’s what you are given in this arresting portmanteau film, the Golden Bear winner at last year’s Berlin film festival. It is written and directed by film-maker and democracy campaigner Mohammad Rasoulof, who has repeatedly been victimised by the Iranian government for his dissident “propaganda” – most recently, に 2020, with a one-year prison sentence and two-year ban on film-making. As with Rasoulof’s fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, a ban of this sort can be finessed, by playing on the government’s strange pedantry and hypocrisy. If the film is technically registered to someone else and shown outside Iran at international film festivals where its appearance boosts Iran’s cultural prestige, the authorities appear to let it slide, though persist with harassment.
There Is No Evil consists of four short stories – with twists and ingeniously concealed interconnections – on the topic of the death penalty and how it is poisoning the country’s soul. Hundreds of people are executed a year in Iran, including children. Execution of the condemned criminal is the job of civilian functionaries but also widely carried out by soldiers doing compulsory national service.
In the first section, entitled There Is No Evil, the secret horror of the death penalty is the unacknowledged elephant in the room. Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), is a dull salaryman, who is shown living his ordinary life after the working day is done: picking his daughter up from school, dealing with his mother-in-law, taking the family out for pizza. It all seems blameless and bland until the working life resumes the next day. The second part, entitled She Said: “You Can Do It”, is where we get the thriller-style tension. Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) is a young national service conscript horrified at the realisation that he must kill a condemned man. It is his job to accompany the prisoner from the cell to the gallows where he must kick the stool away. Does he have the nerve to turn his own weapon on his fellow soldiers?
In the third, Birthday, Javad (Ahangar) is a national-service conscript taking advantage of the extra-long leave given to those who have done their execution duty, to travel to the country and propose to his girlfriend on her birthday, only to discover a hidden horror for which he is responsible. In the fourth section, Kiss Me, a musical cue discreetly hints at a relation with a story that has gone before: a middle-aged couple living in a remote, mountainous part of イラン play host to their sophisticated niece who has been living in Germany.
There is great technique in the storytelling, and Rasoulof’s outrage and nausea at the state-sanctioned murder gives the film passion.