A Film a Week - There Is No Evil / Shaytan vojud nadarad

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
Out of the total number of death penalties conducted globally in the year 2017, over half were done in Iran. The percentage has been dropping since, but Iran is still in the lead in that regard. Another thing, as we learn from Mohammad Rasoulof's newest film that just premiered at the official competition of Berlinale and is one of the favourites for prizes, is that death penalty is rarely being executed by the professional staff, but in most cases the military conscripts (as military service is compulsory for all the country's men, without having it completed they are unable to be employed or to have a passport), which means that the regular citizens are being made accomplices in the country's crimes against humanity.

Rasoulof's film There Is No Evil deals with the issue of the death penalty and the ethics behind it in a series of short, loosely connected stories. The first one follows a seemingly ordinary man Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) out and about doing his daily routine: coming back from work, spending time with his family, taking care of an elderly family member, bickering with his wife, shopping in supermarket. The nature of his job that we learn at the very end of the segment is a shocker that will set the theme for the rest of the film. The second story follows Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), a young soldier tasked for the first time to carry a death penalty by kicking chair under the convict's legs. He is opposing murder on ethical grounds, figuring out how to get transferred, but is surrounded by his mates whose reasoning is that resistance is futile and as unethical as the murder, since someone has to carry it on anyway. The only option is a bold, but desperate attempt of escape to a new life with his girlfriend with the Italian resistance song O, Bella Ciao as a leitmotiv.

The third story starts also with a man who is also seemingly on the run, but Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) says that he is on his regular weekend leave from the army, going to his girlfriend Nana's (Mathab Servati) birthday in order to propose to her. However, the village is mourning the death of a beloved teacher who was also an activist that was executed for his political views, and Javad has to face the consequences of his actions and moral choices. The fourth story, revolving around a couple of former intellectuals and possibly resistance figures and their niece Darya (Baran Rasoulof, the director's daughter) who visits the country of her origins for the first time (or after a long time). The death penalty dilemma here is extended on other living being rather than human, but is over-shadowed with a not-so-secret-secret within a family that opens some new philosophical questions about giving and taking life and/or identity.

Rasoulof's storytelling is intriguing enough to make There Is No Evil more than a mere collection of thematically connected shorts, which is obvious from the way one segment moves to another and the suggestions of interlinks that might connect the dots between the different segments in a more significant fashion. That might not be the case, there is a clear sense of ambiguity around it, but it makes the film as thought-provoking as it gets, and not only concerning its primary topic and the ethics and the politics behind it.

When it comes to directing, it is clear that, unlike his colleague Jafar Panahi, who turned to more of a low-fi approach due to the government ban, Rasoulof is determined to remain faithful to his standards of filmmaking, despite the same type of ban imposed on him. The style remains pretty much the same, it is a proper art house film, professionally shot and edited, with a lot of thought put to it, with a clear sense of purpose in every one of the stories. However, the question arises how much control can he keep, being forced to film in secrecy or to delegate some of his work to his assistants, and it sometimes shows.

The acting is usually spot-on, but there are some missed cues that might be attributed to the director's absence from shooting, and the unevenness of the segments and the parts of the segments could also be dictated by that fact rather than story itself or the ability of the editor, or even by the fact that There Is No Evil is an omnibus film by nature. There are also some slight pacing issues, since 150 minutes of runtime sometimes seem a bit excessive, especially with the last story succeeding and failing to make a point or reach catharsis at the same time.

Nevertheless, disregarding all the alibis, There Is No Evil is a very good film that makes up for the slight missteps with its cleverness, integrity and soulfulness. Rasoulof is here to stay at the film festival circuit, no matter the ban. Good news!

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