There is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)


The face of a woman who knows that there is, in fact, evil.

(2020) Drama (Kino Lorber) Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shoorian, Kaveh Ahangar, Alireza Zaraparest, Shahi Jila, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Mahtab Servati, Mohamad Valizadegan, Darya Moghbeli, Kaveh Ebrahim, Salar Khamseh, Gholamhosein Taseiri, Alireza Zareparast, Parvin Maleki, Reza Bahrami, Pouya Mehri, Baran Rasoulof. Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

 

Iran may as well exist on another planet by Western viewpoint. A religious oligarchy rules the country with an iron fist; people can be arrested for crimes of morality, and even executed for them. As with the United States, there are those in Iran who oppose capital punishment. Director Mohammad Rasoulof is one of them.

Already stripped of the right to make films in his native country, Rasoulof made this film surreptitiously and without government approval. It was smuggled out of Iran and played the Berlin Film Festival, where it achieved (justified) acclaim. Now appearing in art houses and on virtual cinema, the two and a half long film is an anthology of four stories, unrelated except all are about capital punishment in some form.

In the first chapter, Heshmat (Mirhosseini) is a middle aged man working for the government. He watches television blankly during the day, then goes to pick up his wife (Shoorian) from work and his daughter, whom he dotes on, from school. He goes grocery shopping for his infirm mother and helps clean her house. He dyes his wife’s hair and seemingly has a loving, bantering relationship with her. But he seems distracted – on his way to work at 3am the next morning, he pauses at a stoplight, even when it has turned green, staring into space. One wonders what he’s thinking about, before he jerks awake and proceeds on his way to work. There, we discover what he was thinking about in the most shocking way possible.

The second chapter finds Pouya (Ahangar), a military conscript doing his compulsory service, given an order that goes against his own personal morals. He talks with his fellow buddies, who warn him that failure to carry out his orders could get him court martialed, extending his military service and possibly preventing him from getting the passport his girlfriend is pestering him to get so they can emigrate to Austria. His decision on how to deal with his moral dilemma seems sudden and perhaps not thought fully through, but it is one that feels realistic.

The third chapter concerns another soldier doing compulsory service, Javad (Valizadegan) who is on a three day pass to visit his fiancée (Servati) and her family. He stops to bathe in a clear stream, and there is good reason for it as it turns out. He arrives when her family is mourning the death of a favorite teacher, who was executed. She is beginning to wonder whether there is a future for her in Iran; he has a secret that could conceivably tear the couple apart.

Finally, in the final story Bahram (Seddighimehr) and his wife Zaman (Shahi) welcome their niece Darya (B. Rasoulof) visiting Iran for the first time from his brother’s home in Germany. The couple have isolated themselves in the sticks, working as beekeepers after he had trained to be a doctor and she had been a pharmacist. There is a strained, awkward feeling between the three; Bahram has something to tell Darya but doesn’t know how to do it. When he does finally admit what he has to say to her, it is an absolutely devastating emotional moment for the film.

Whether or not you agree with capital punishment, this is a movie that resonates on every level, looking at the subect from a variety of points of view. It depicts the effects of decisions to participate in capital punishment – or at least to look the other way – on lives and relationships. I don’t know that it will make anyone who is pro-capital punishment change their minds, but it simply presents the consequences of taking human life in a straightforward manner.

The film is necessarily minimalistic since Rousolof is forbidden from making films; it had to be shot on the sly and what technical post-production additions (such as a score) were kept to a bare minimum. Rousolof is an engaging storyteller who gets across his points in ways that often are breathtaking, particularly in the first and last chapters. He does have a tendency to rely on blindsiding his audience which might seem a cheap tactic, but it works very well in this case.

He also draws characters that are realistic and casts non-professionals (mainly) who inhabit these parts well. I don’t think that I’ve felt as strong an emotional reaction to any film I’ve seen so far this year; it is destined to be a movie that will end up on a lot of year’s best lists, not to mentioin may end up as a powerful, influential movie that will carry echoes beyond its Iranian origins. This is for any lover of cinema, a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures ordinary life in powerful ways. Explores the morality of capital punishment from a variety of points of view. Compelling characters and performances. Keeps the score to a minimum. Some really shocking moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While it won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale (the highest honor at the Berlin Film Festival), it is banned in Iran for what is perceived to be anti-government sentiment.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Sweat
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Without Remorse

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman


Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

(IFC) Timothy Spall, Julie Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Michael Norton, Tobias Menzies, Clive Francis, Claire Keelan. Directed by Adrian Shergold.

An eye for an eye is what the Old Testament recommends in terms of justice. For two thousand years, Western justice has more or less followed this dictate, particularly when it comes to capital crimes. That begs the question; how are the ones charged with exacting judicial vengeance affected by it?

Albert Pierrepoint (Spall) is a grocer in Depression-era Britain. Somewhat shy, he romances Annie (Stevenson), a clerk at a nearby shop and eventually marries her. Times are hard and he has applied to the British Home Office for a position as hangman in order to bring in some extra income. This isn’t a decision come to lightly – he has several other members of the family who have performed this office. As it turns out, Pierrepoint is remarkably efficient, able to move prisoners from cell to noose to corpse in less than a minute. He quickly becomes one of the most sought-after hangmen in Britain because of it.

This efficiency catches the eye of Field Marshall Montgomery (Francis), who is looking for someone to dispense British justice to Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg. Pierrepoint is enlisted and is flown to Germany, where he is given a somewhat deferential Army assistant (Menzies) to help him with the task of executing dozens of Nazis. When he returns home, he discovers that the press has discovered his identity and he is hailed as a national hero, to his amazement.

With the income from his work in Germany he is able to buy a pub and leave the grocery business. At his pub, he meets James “Tish” Corbett (Marsan), a garrulous man who is able to bring Pierrepoint (who he calls “Tosh”) out of his shell. The two often sing duets at the piano, and they become close friends. Tish, who is separated from his wife, has taken up with a mistress (Keelan) who often derides him publically. While Pierrepoint and his wife are less than enthralled with the mistress, they take solace in having a friend who doesn’t treat him like a pariah for his ghoulish sideline.

As the years pass, so do British attitudes towards capital punishment. Once feted as a national hero, now Pierrepoint is reviled as a murderer. At first, Pierrepoint is puzzled and troubled by this change of attitude. However, his own attitude is called into question when he finds his friend Tish in his docket awaiting execution.

Based on a true story of Britain’s most notorious executioner, the film is rather matter-of-fact and even clinical about the executions that Pierrepoint performs. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, plays Pierrepoint as a meticulous, almost business-like executioner, well-versed in the physics of hanging and able to tell from height and weight exactly how to set the noose in order to kill the convict cleanly and quickly. His performance is exemplary and reminds us that he is one of Britain’s finest actors with a background in Shakespeare and Mike Leigh films before coming to the Potter universe.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Stevenson, who I became a big fan of in Truly Madly Deeply back onscreen. She often plays a lot of thankless roles and here she makes good use of her onscreen time as Pierrepoint’s supportive wife, who while aware of his sideline, rarely discusses it with him until it becomes an elephant in the room, leading to one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

Plainly, the filmmakers have an opinion on capital punishment but this is less about the merits of the death penalty and more on how it affects those who carry it out. Pierrepoint is far from a deranged psychopath; he is a civil servant who does his job efficiently and well. The fact that he, his wife and his friend are all so ordinary and average is what gives the movie its odd poignancy.

WHY RENT THIS: Spall performs marvelously in a role that is deceptively bland. Interesting presentation on how capital punishment affects the executioners.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The clinical portrayal of hangings might be disturbing to sensitive viewers. The ordinariness of the characters can make for occasional moments of boredom.

FAMILY VALUES: The above-mentioned executions are not for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title is a bit misleading. Although Pierrepoint retired in 1964, executions by hanging continued to take place in Britain until 1965.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Stoned