(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