Four extended vignettes about the Iranian carceral state form an unforgettable insight into the moral weight of murder
In a year with the release of a new entry from Asghar Farhadi, you might think all the available international attention for Iranian films has been taken up and, at least as far as awards chatter goes, you might be right. But save room for Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, an epically long but also immensely rewarding quartet of stories revolving around Iran’s death penalty and the toll it takes on the victims, the executioners, and the family and friends caught up in the aftermath.
United by their common theme, the four vignettes are otherwise kept separate from one another, each giving us a glimpse into a different world within Iran and the grim workings of its justice system. First up is middle-aged family man Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), who we see spend a mundane day with his mother, wife, and daughter before he drives off to a night shift at a dank facility where he has to pull the lever on a mass hanging. It’s a genuinely stomach-turning sequence, one that goes on to set up the slightly more melodramatic events of the subsequent vignettes.
In the second segment, we’re taken to a military-run prison, where a new conscript shakes with terror at the prospect of having to carry out an execution. The third deals with a soldier on leave with his girlfriend, racked with guilt over a killing, while the final part is more mysterious, as an uncle and his niece go on a hunting trip that starts to reveal fragments of an ugly past. Rasoulof keeps a general aesthetic and tone consistent throughout the film, but each section feels different enough to its stablemates that the filmmaking never becomes predictable. One might make greater use of music than the rest, while another thrives on its gorgeous locations and cinematography. All are bound by a queasily uncertain moral code that becomes more and more absorbing as these stories play out, even if it can feel like some of the segments take a bit too long to finally reveal their hands.
Segments echo one another in unforgettable ways, perhaps most strikingly in a motif of ascents up through the earth that seem to, counterintuitively, drag the protagonists closer to hell, and the cumulative weight of the choices these characters do and don’t make is quietly shattering by the end. Tragedy and terror can melt away into stolen moments of love and joy, but it’s just as likely that these snatches of domestic bliss will be disrupted by the presence of the guilt and shame these characters carry with them, the violence inherent in Iran’s institutions infecting their souls.
Morally discomforting and offering no easy answers inside its imposing 150 minute runtime, There Is No Evil asks a lot of its audience, but offers just as much in the way of rewards if you’re willing to grapple with its questions. Bold in both content and form, Rasoulof melds his script’s issue-movie premises with sumptuous directorial choices, never falling prey to the often rather dull kitchen-sink verité styles that can accompany films like this, crafting a deeply involving and provocative look at cruelty and guilt as a result.
There Is No Evil is released in cinemas on 3 December.Where to watch