“There Is No Evil” – If everything is evil [MOVIE REVIEW]

Chapter Two: "She Said You Can Do It" Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Chapter Two: “She Said You Can Do It” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

“There is No Evil,” is a profound and uncomfortable exploration of the blurry lines between personal morality and right and wrong, by Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasulof.

It is almost impossible to summarize each distinct chapter without revealing an important story point acting as a spoiler. Rasulof, who has, himself, been jailed by the Iranian regime for running afoul of the censors in his long career as a director/writer, turns that mirror on his viewers.

And the question in the mirror is “what would you do?” In Iran, the death penalty is the punishment administered to those breaking the law. Such laws, however, can be quite amorphous. What is a criminal action? How are these laws adjudicated and which ones are deemed sufficient to demand execution? Are they physical crimes? Political crimes? Religious crimes? Who makes that determination and who, more importantly, carries them out?

Focusing primarily on young men doing their military service who have been singled out for stints as personal executioners—the ones who pull out the stool from beneath the feet of the prisoner—discussions of personal philosophy ensue.

Chapter 2 entitled “She Said You Can Do It” concerns a young recruit whose job it will be early the next morning to pull out the chair. He can’t sleep, he’s physically ill, and has been backed into a corner, not just by the authorities but also by his fellow conscripts, all of whom have done this job and will again. Our young soldier cannot bring himself to act. But if he doesn’t do this job he will be severely punished and his military service doubled. He will end up in a continuing circle of hell as an executioner. His cellmates, for like the prisoners they are kept in locked cells in the same prison, exhort him to back down, especially because he will be given three days leave and can visit his girlfriend. But can he do it?

Chapter 3, “The Birthday,” starts out brightly. Javad, on 3 day leave from his military service, has arrived at the family villa of his girlfriend. It is her birthday and he plans to propose. But there is no celebration. The day before, a beloved family friend and professor has died. Not died, he was executed to purge society of the menace he posed to the State. A pall descends on everyone, including Javad, who is forced to confront his own morality.

Chapter Four: “Kiss Me.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

In Chapter 4, “Kiss Me,”  Darya, a young Med Student from the big city arrives at the remote countryside cabin of her “uncle” Bahram. Darya was exhorted by her father and uncle to pay the visit. But why? Bahram has a secret that he’s held since Darya’s birth and now, with his death looming, he feels a need to share the secret that has a direct and somber impact on Darya.

Chapter 1, “There Is No Evil,” which opens the film, follows the mundane, middle class existence of Heshmat and his family as he goes about his daily tasks. A pleasant man with a demanding wife and a spoiled daughter, he is doing the best he can. He is what Hannah Arndt probably intended when she coined the phrase, “the banality of evil.” I say “intended” because there was nothing banal about Adolf Eichmann’s evil. I list this episode last because I feel that it would have had maximum impact if it had had placement at the end.

All the chapters in this film place the focus not just on the characters, all of whom are well drawn and three dimensional, but on the viewer. In each case, what would you have done? Or more specifically, given a law that is fundamentally wrong, would you disobey it regardless of personal danger? There are probably no answers, just more questions.

And, again, each chapter holds its own twist, some more surprising than others. But Rasulof is exceptionally adept at presenting his thesis. Obeying a law against nature robs the individual of his humanity and erodes personal beliefs until there is no choice. Is there free will when there is no choice?

Rasulof has written and directed a difficult and thought-provoking film. It is a film of ideas and he succeeds in communicating them. The cinematography greatly enhances each chapter from the neon-lit banal, in Chapter 1 to the dark sinister palette in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 begins in bright light that fades to sinister darkness. And finally, in Chapter 4, the story melds perfectly with the remote moonscape of the barren, monochromatic mountains.

“There Is No Evil” is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one to see. Rasulof himself stated, “how do autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines? In authoritarian states, the sole purpose of the law is the preservation of the state, and not the facilitation and regulation of people’s relations. I come from such a state.” He continued, “As responsible citizens, do we have a choice when enforcing the inhumane orders of despots? As human beings, to what extent are we to be held responsible for our fulfillment of those orders?” These are tough questions for any member of society, not just of autocratic regimes offering little or no choice.

It is hoped that Rasulof will be released from house arrest, although he has found the ways and means to continue working. “There Is No Evil” was produced while he was prohibited from leaving the country and “spreading propaganda against the Islamic government.” Repercussions are likely.

In Farsi with English subtitles.

Opening Friday May 14 at the Laemmle Royal, Playhouse, and Town Center. Coming soon to the South Bay Film Society.



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