The role of fiction is to represent that which can’t be observed, whether aspects of inner life or inaccessible reaches of the outside world. That’s why fictional films at their best are a kind of documentary—as is true of the Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s haunting new drama, “There Is No Evil” (opening on Friday at Film Forum, in person and online). The film reveals horrific truths about capital punishment in Iran, and its revelations are all the more trenchant given that the Iranian government carries out executions in secret, without public observers. Rasoulof’s feature—which he filmed clandestinely, while banned from filmmaking on political grounds—takes the place of impossible documentary reporting on the subject.
“There Is No Evil” (the Farsi title translates literally to “Satan Doesn’t Exist,” implying, as Justine Barda writes, “that evil is a uniquely human creation”) is centered on the executioners themselves. It takes us into their lives to show the nature of their complicity with the regime, and reaches beyond their immediate hands-on death-dealing to show others around them who are also grievously affected and grimly implicated. It shows, as well, the fracturing of Iranian society at large that is papered over through imposed silences and official deceptions. Rasoulof builds the film with a distinctive, and apt, dramatic form that makes it very difficult to write about without spoilers. It consists of four episodes, all of which involve sudden revelations or even surprise endings that bear great dramatic weight. (I’ll try to finesse it, but, nonetheless—spoiler alert.) Yet this trickery comes off not as manipulative showmanship but as an essential element of the film’s political astuteness. Rasoulof depicts situations that are deceptive in their ordinariness but are suddenly revealed to be infected with the rot of capital punishment—or lives that are thrown out of whack by resistance to the regime’s orders or by willingness to comply with them.
The first episode, also called “There Is No Evil,” is the story of Heshmat, a cheerfully responsible husband, father, and son who also happens to have a job in the capital-punishment bureaucracy. Before disclosing Heshmat’s professional endeavors, the film unfolds the banalities of his daily routine, as well as its troubling mysteries. He picks up his official ration of rice, passes through a high-security gate and a guardhouse where his car’s trunk is inspected (he makes easy chat with the guard about the quality of the rice), and returns home to shower and watch television. He rescues a neighbors’ cat that’s stuck under a boiler and later drives to pick up his wife and daughter to go shopping at the supermarket. (They also stop at the bank, in a sharply conceived scene that emphasizes the patriarchal burden that women in Iran bear.) The subject of Heshmat’s job never gets discussed with his family or his neighbors, and that silence is the point, part of the dome of official silence and secrecy surrounding Iran’s practice of state killing. In showing the busy doings of Heshmat’s ordinary life, Rasoulof effectively implicates the people around him—their comforts and pleasures, affective bonds and constructive plans—in an unchallenged, unquestioned, and unspoken system of killing.
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The second episode, “She Said, ‘You Can Do It,’ ” is the most dramatic and the most analytical of the four parts, with the tension of a thriller and an intimate window into the state’s intricate machinery of death. It’s set mainly in a one-room military barracks where young male conscripts are trying to sleep—except for one, named Pouya, who is desperately trying to reach his girlfriend by cell phone. The barracks turns out to be in a prison; Pouya is part of an execution unit composed of draftees. He’s on duty that night to commit an execution (which is described as “pulling the stool” from under a condemned person), and he’s trying to get out of doing it by using his girlfriend’s connections. The other recruits, some who are angry at Pouya, some sympathetic, discuss their lot: all men are required to do military service, and refusal to carry out the order of execution would mean punishment and worse: failure to complete military service is a bar to more or less any sort of involvement in civil society—getting a passport, a driver’s license, a job, a trade license, even an insurance policy. Another recruit, Hasan, reminds Pouya that the condemned prisoners were duly convicted of a crime, and that if he disagrees with their fate then he should work to change the law of the land. But Pouya simply can’t bring himself to take part in the execution. Instead, he quickly plots a risky escape, which Rasoulof films thriller-style, in an extended Steadicam shot, set to an all-percussion score. Pouya’s bold, perhaps foolhardy decision is an existential self-sacrifice in the face of an absolute sense of morality. (The scene also features a surprising needle drop that restores an overly familiar song’s vast historical implications.)
In “Birthday,” the third episode, another young draftee, named Javad, travels through deep woodlands to a remote house, where he surprises his girlfriend, Na’na, who lives there with her parents and brother. It’s her birthday, and Javad plans to propose to her, but the festive mood is shrouded by the family’s mourning for a friend named Keyvan, a political prisoner who was put to death by the regime. The family is living in a sort of self-imposed exile—it’s not quite clear why, but Na’na’s mother implies that they were being forced to do things that they didn’t want to do, just as, Javad tells her, he was being forced to do military service. “If we say no, they’ll destroy our lives,” Javad tells her—but he eventually finds that he has done a good job of destroying his own life by saying yes.
The movie’s final chapter, “Kiss Me,” echoes both the second and third episodes; it’s another story of a couple living in rural isolation who have paid a heavy price for their rejection of the killing regime. They’re visited by a young relative, who lives in Germany, and during her time with the older couple, family secrets come to the fore with a terrifyingly destructive power.
Rasoulof’s camera eye is plain and functional, his method spare and naturalistic. He uses no flashbacks, voice-overs, internal monologues, visualizations of memories, depictions of fantasies, or narrative digressions. The movie is also sparing with metaphors and symbols—though the few that Rasoulof builds into the texture of the drama, such as a view of Javad’s wet military uniform hanging from a tree and an image of a fox prowling around a farm, are piercingly effective. (The last episode, with its recurring detail of driving to a hilltop to get cell-phone reception, is a nod to another great Iranian film about death, Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us.”) In making executioners his protagonists, Rasoulof centers the moral choice that’s involved in taking the step to kill, in taking the commanded steps that lead to the decisive moment, and in the many steps that follow the first fateful choice. He doesn’t overlook or marginalize the victims; rather, he conjures them, both as crude organic matter that the state presumes to dispose of and as loved ones who remain present and powerful in the memories of those who mourn them. A photograph of a victim is portrayed as being more alive than the living body of an executioner: “There Is No Evil” is the story of a country that’s haunted by the ghosts of its victims, who are more vital and whole than the killers who, in their living death, are society’s zombies.