BERLIN: Lights flicker on in a gloomy parking garage and a pair of men, struggling slightly with their shared burden, move through the frame. They heave the sack into the trunk of a car and, after the driver’s casual thanks, they part ways.
Even if this film weren’t called “There is No Evil,” you might assume the worst. Thanks to television police procedurals, the dead weight and proportions of the sack warn you there’s a human body in the trunk.
Then the car emerges from the parking garage into a high-security courtyard and a pair of guards tell the driver to open his trunk.
“What’s in the sack?”
“My rice ration,” the driver replies.
“Let me know how it is,” the soldier says, his tone familiar as a massive gate grinds open before them. “If it’s any good, I’ll get some too.”
Expert use of misdirection is among the strengths of Mohammad Rasoulof’s new film, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival last week. Having thwarted the audience’s genre expectations early on, the filmmaker persists in teasing your hopes and presumptions throughout.
“There is No Evil” presents four independent stories on a common theme – capital punishment. Characters in these miniatures have all been called upon to kill their fellow citizens on behalf of the state.
The dubious ethical foundations of capital punishment – unbiased judicial infallibility – linger around the edges of this film but, unlike other “issue movies,” “No Evil” seldom makes its actors debate matters of abstract principle. Seen through the foibles of its characters, the film’s ideas – how institutions can corrupt citizens, say – find more nuanced and urgent expression than any lecture.
After driving home with his cache of rice, Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) navigates a humdrum sort of day. He helps a neighbor rescue the family cat from the car park. He picks up his wife, Razieh, from work and with their little girl they run errands and prepare supper for his elderly mom before going out for pizza. He sleeps early and rises at 3 a.m.
It’s only while Heshmat’s en route to work – lost in thought at an abandoned intersection as the traffic light again drops from green to red – that he appears preoccupied.
While preparing a snack at work, he notices a bank of lights ignite on one wall. He peers though the window beneath the lights, reaches for a switch, pauses, presses and the lights turn red. Somewhere, five pairs of feet drop a few centimeters. Three of them kick and quiver. Bladders empty onto the floor.
Rasoulof was unable to attend the world premiere of “No Evil” in Berlin, as he’s still entangled in a travel ban that’s periodically restricted his movement since he and Jafar Panahi were arrested in 2009.
Film premieres and news conferences with empty chairs, with the director’s name pinned to them, and postwin smartphone interviews can be photogenic, tempting skeptics to assume that the Berlinale’s jury rewarded Rasoulof’s politics rather than his filmmaking.
The first post-Berlinale blowback, in fact, was news that Iran’s judiciary had sent Rasoulof an SMS summoning him to serve a year in prison for his previous film – 2017’s “A Man of Integrity,” which won the best film prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section and was condemned by regime elements as propaganda.
As this review went online, the filmmaker had not complied with the SMS. His lawyer has pointed out that prisons have been decentralizing their populations in order to contain the spread the latest strain of coronavirus there.
“No Evil” isn’t particularly partisan (Iran isn’t the only state that reserves the right to kill inconvenient citizens). It is a highly political film, but Rasoulof never allows political principles to get in the way of fine cinema.
The next two miniatures stand in counterpoint to one another. Both tell stories of young men, conscripts serving their obligatory two years in the army, just making time until they can reunite with their strong-willed girlfriends and start their lives. The men – Pouya in one story, Javad in the other – have had the bad luck to end up in units assigned to “kick the stool out” from under prisoners sentenced to death by hanging.
Most of “She Said You Can Do It” is located in the barracks of a detention/execution facility in Tehran, where the jittery Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) awaits his first assignment. He knows he doesn’t have the stomach to kill anybody and he keeps receiving calls from his girlfriend, who he says is petitioning her uncle to have Pouya transferred. The other guards don’t relish the work either but they’ve resigned themselves to following orders and, as his jitters escalate toward panic, they encourage (or browbeat) him to do the same.
The tone of the story abruptly changes part-way through, shifting from existentialist melodrama a-la Sartre to a genre-inflected jailbreak tale, accentuated by the jovial communist partisan tune “Bella Ciao.”
“Birthday,” the third story, opens upon a train moving through the Iranian countryside, taking Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) to the country house of his girlfriend’s parents. Upon arrival, he immediately changes into civilian clothes and hides his uniform.
He’s planned to drop in on his girlfriend, Nana, during her birthday party, intending to use the occasion to give her an engagement ring. His plans, and her birthday, have been ruined by the death of Kayram, a dear family friend, political dissident and Nana’s former teacher.
When Javad sees how upset Nana is, he suspects she’s been disloyal to him. Then, as he helps prepare for a gathering of Kayram’s friends and former students, he realizes, to his horror, that he’d met Kayram.
Rasoulof ends his film with “Kiss Me!” It tells the story of Darya (Baran Rasoulof), a young woman living with her family in Berlin who has been sent to visit her uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr) and his wife in an isolated country house far from Tehran.
Though Darya and the older couple are friendly, there is unspoken strain because her father refused to explain the urgency of her return to Iran. Bahram, from whose perspective the story is told, is only able to stare at the young woman in silent longing that makes Darya uncomfortable and that audience members will likely find a bit creepy.
For fans of Iranian cinema, the lovely locations of “Kiss Me!” and the framing of cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani may be read as an homage to the midcareer work of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016).
Bahram’s taciturn intensity may be reminiscent of the protagonist of Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry,” whose suicidal plotting is misread. Darya’s inability to find a mobile phone signal, and her need to be driven to the top of a nearby hill to use her phone, will remind audiences of the near-comic travails of the engineer in Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us,” dispatched to capture an obscure, never-filmed village ritual.
The homage may be sincere, but the menace and odd intimations of ritual they conjure up are misdirection. As a plaintive score of “Bela Ciao!” is reprised, the story behind Bahram’s reticent yearning is revealed to be at once less exotic and more sad than you might expect.