Note: The writer of this review watched There Is No Evil on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
In his novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Italian writer Italo Calvino observed, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” That statement is insightful enough and broad enough to apply figuratively to any form of art. But Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear (or top prize) at Berlin last year, puts a literal spin on it. A collection of four thematically connected stories about Iran’s death penalty and the demoralizing impact of state-sanctioned killing, this elegantly written and humanely acted movie extends empathy in multiple directions, including towards those struggling with the burden of “just following orders.” The film’s as compassionate as it is unsettling, and as provocative as it is poignant.
Iranian films made after the 1979 Revolution have tended toward domestic dramas that navigate the sometimes-puzzling contradictions of life within the Islamic Republic. Public piety versus private secularism, familial loyalty versus independent ambition, authoritarian government control versus the resilience of the human spirit—these have been the favored dualities of filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi and the late Abbas Kiarostami. Death is a recurring component of this thematic tableau: as a source of mystery (Farhadi’s About Elly) or existential musing (Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry), or as the court-ordered endpoint for a familial dispute (Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, A Night For Forgiveness) or a drug lord facing trial (Saeed Roustayi’s Just 6.5). In a restrictive society where living fully as oneself can feel impossible—and where traditional cultural expressions such as poetry and literature noticeably tend toward fatalism—death looms large.
Rasoulof, who has grappled with the Iranian government since 2010 (he was arrested while directing a project alongside countryman Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker with his own contentious history with the authorities), lends the film an appreciably intimate shape. Each of the slice-of-life vignettes places us alongside an Iranian man affected by either the country’s two-year military-service mandate or its capital punishment policies. Rasoulof, who wrote as well as directing the film, centers characters of various ages, classes, and social backgrounds. Some are married, some are not. Some live in the capital city of Tehran, others in outlying rural regions like a lush mountaintop or a dusty, remote village. Some object to being involved in ordered executions, and some put their trust in the criminal justice system. Is it more difficult to follow orders or to object against them? There Is No Evil answers one way, and then another. There is no grandstanding here. The film’s sole definitive opinion is that the entire concept of the death penalty is inhumane and immoral. (Rasoulof could probably speak for hours with filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, whose Clemency considered the same themes from an American perspective.)
There Is No Evil devotes around a half hour to each chapter, and this languid, intentional pacing allows for characters to grow into more than just “follower” or “objector.” In opening segment “There Is No Evil,” the daily routine of family man Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) is boringly relatable. He goes to work, he goes to the grocery store, he braves Tehran’s terrible traffic, he argues with his wife about whether they eat too much junk food, he cleans his mother’s apartment. Mirhosseini’s performance is so natural and even-keeled that the impact of the segment’s final minute is horrendously jarring.
The subsequent three sections follow that established format, with the introduction of a character and then a slow build toward a reveal about the nature of their complaint or compliance. In “You Can Do It,” new conscriptee Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) argues with his bunkmates about the death penalty, and the conversation makes plain the life-ruining repercussions for someone who refuses to serve. “Be a good boy and pull away the stool,” one of his fellow soldiers sneers, but is it really so easy for them? Third segment “Birthday” follows soldier Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) during three days of leave; his plans to propose to girlfriend Nana (Mahtab Servati) are derailed by a family tragedy. And final segment “Kiss Me” addresses the cultural differences between native Iranians and first-generation children of Iranian expats, with 20-year-old Darya (Baran Rasoulof) returning to the country to visit uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr), with whom she disagrees about almost everything.
The third and fourth segments are plotted more obviously than the first two, and rely a little too much on slightly predictable connections between characters to drive home the rippling effects of a death sentence. But the performances are so strong throughout all four that narrative details end up mattering less than how these characters react to them. Mirhosseini’s lost-in-thought expression as he drives to work one early morning, the green-yellow-red lights of the traffic signal illuminating his face, suggest a hidden shame regarding his job. Valizadegan gives a full-body performance as Javad, running after and away from Nana on the mountain after he realizes the circumstances regarding her family’s recent loss. (Javad plunging his head into a mountain creek to scream underwater, holding himself so long under that his body shakes from fighting off drowning, is a moment of pure agony.) Rasoulof’s narrative approach makes these stories structurally similar, but the differences in location, shot composition, and tone (enhanced by first-rate cinematography and a percussively tense score by Amir Molookpour) help build an understanding of the myriad ways such moralist dilemmas might play out.
A few contextual details benefit viewers of Iranian background: The fact that Heshmat has to visit a government-owned bank to collect his salary suggests something specific about his character that the film waits to confirm, while the fox slinking around Bahram’s estate reflects age-old Iranian perspectives about the animal. Other moments are plain enough that audiences of all nationalities should be able to discern their significance, like Heshmat’s elementary-school-aged daughter bossily telling her father, “You lied and you should be punished.” Yet is any situation really so black and white? Through the evocative performances of its ensemble cast and an impassioned argument that certain punishments are more destructive than certain crimes, There Is No Evil presents a stirringly defiant case for the importance of all life.