Winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and banned in its home country of Iran, Mohammed Rasoulof’s eighth film as director intensely scrutinises Iran’s use of the death penalty through the lens of four separate episodes. There Is No Evil is a vital document of the all-pervasive state in an authoritarian regime.
Although There Is No Evil incorporates four distinct chapters, they each cohere into a single story of oppression, coercion and state violence. The power of telling four distinct stories centred around conscription and the death penalty is to create the sense that this is a universal and pervasive experience. All men are expected to perform military service and there is a good chance that conscripts will be required to perform executions.
Whether executioner, prisoner, or family, there are few who are not directly affected by this state policy, while the same experiences invariably repeat themselves. The fourth chapter, for example, plays as an implicit sequel to the second, featuring different characters who have had almost identical experiences, unifying the segments narratively and the entire piece thematically. Narrative contrivances and touches of melodrama are found across each story, but these only heighten, rather than cheapen, the profound human tragedy that is inflicted upon the film’s subjects.
Though the subject matter is different, the metanarrative connections between the four shorts have the marks of Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, while Rasoulof himself has cited Werner Herzog, Ken Loach and Michael Haneke as influences on his work. Rasoulof and cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani have absolute control over their imagery, eliciting moments of banality, the sublime and narratively tense through sparse, quiet compositions and disarmingly beautiful colour schemes. The filmmaking here ranges from the austere and the lush, from grey urban spaces to pastoral countryside. Its visual range never feels incoherent, however, in speaking to the boundless reach of state policy, while Rasoulof’s (who himself is banned from leaving Iran due to his films’ criticism of the state) rage and disgust at the regime is palpable.
It feels glib to talk of spoilers in a film with such emotional and aesthetic power as this, but each story has a key moment of revelation or release in which that power is held. Some of them, as with the second story, ‘Birthday’, gradually become clear across the narrative, while the first pulls out the rug in its final seconds, and the third has a final act as thrilling and tense as any conventional action film. To reveal those moments here would betray the strength of feeling and attention that they deserve. Suffice to say, There Is No Evil is a deeply felt study of the effects of state violence on the individual. While the cost of resistance is high, the price of compliance may well be greater.