Mohammad Rasoulof’s anthology is a provocative look at capital punishment in Iran, even if it’s drawn out for stretches.
Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil begins with a slow and winding tracking shot as a car exits an underground garage. It all too perfectly sets the tone for the film, which itself is slow, winding, monotonous, and mysterious. It’s a richly humanistic contemplation on the death penalty in Iran and the questions it raises.
But Rasoulof has not written and directed a grand abolitionist treatise. Instead, he’s dialed in on the mundanity of the death penalty, the normal people made executioners by a conscripting government. Told in four loose but poignantly connected stories, There Is No Evil begins each chapter setting the everydayness of the scene, often through long steady tracking shots.
It lets us sit with the characters and see just how ordinary they are. They’re stopping by the bank, picking up kids from school, beginning their mandatory tour as a soldier, having a funeral, and hosting family. The majority of dialogue isn’t about the film’s subject, though. It’s about the people in it and the regular things we say to one another. Then the extraordinary turn comes. Often when Rasoulof reveals the death penalty’s implications on the narrative, it’s a sudden drop in the heart. The second chapter in particular is a masterclass in emotional and ethical tension-building. (It also has a primo use of Milva!)
Like the car climbing the car park, by the third story, we start to look around the upcoming corners, anticipating how we’ll encounter the death penalty this time. This film does an excellent job at confronting us with the ethics of the death penalty in a government that requires mandatory military service. It shows how such a system can turn the most regular of people into killers with severe and generational consequences for objecting.
Rasoulof has not written and directed a grand abolitionist treatise. Instead, he’s dialed in on the mundanity of the death penalty, the normal people made executioners by a conscripting government.
While these clever twists pack a punch, the punches are in the same spot. Since each story more or less restarts and Rasoulof has to lay out each new everyman, There Is No Evil can at times feel one-note. The varying approaches on what’s a delicate subject can eventually get tedious over the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and the irony isn’t enough to fully deconstruct the system that creates and supports military conscription. Though this film is about characters trapped in a web beyond their control, we understand very little about the strings or the spiders that manipulate them. There’s no evil at the level of the lever, yet these characters are not exempt from outside evils. (Sadly, There Is Some Evil isn’t as catchy of a title.)
But it’s clear abolition isn’t Rasoulof’s objective. He wants to make us think about the people forced to pull the stool out, and in that, he most certainly succeeds. Though each story follows a man, Rasoulof brilliantly incorporates gender to add nuance to the story. Ethics and doubting the system are read by participants in the system as effeminate and queer. However, Rasoulof counters all of this by having these men make the most difficult choices. The women, meanwhile, ask the toughest questions while demanding ethics and justice.
There’s a danger with these types of narratives that it’ll all come down to individual choice and rob the narrative of any systemic critique. And while Rasoulof doesn’t go for a wide-reaching look at the carceral system in Iran, his profoundly humane portrait still poses bold and subtly sweeping emotional questions about blame, agency, and choice.
There Is No Evil is now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.