Doch das Böse gibt es nicht / There is No Evil

There is No Evil contains four short stories which have no direct relationship to each other, apart from being musings of the Death Penalty in Iran. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin, which might ring warning bells for me – I often don’t get on well with Golden Bear winners.

The first story, also called There is No Evil, is a day in the life of a family. It starts with a man, Heshmat, driving a car out of a multi-storey car park. The camera fixes on the road ahead, so as he approaches each bend you have the feeling that something is going to happen – some large vehicle is going to come tumbling down towards him, surely? Each time … nothing. This scene takes several minutes and gives a good foretaste of what is to come.

Heshmat has amicable rows with his wife, who is fussing because they’re going to a wedding the next day, and a dress she ordered is late. They collect their daughter from school, and she complains that nearly everyone has gone already. Heshmat goes grocery shopping with his daughter and looks after his ageing mother-in-law. If that sounds banal, well I think that’s the point. The dullness is all a floor show running up to the Big Reveal.

The second story, She Said, ‘You can do it’” concerns six soldiers in a cell, one of whom is to be picked out to perform an execution. If he doesn’t follow orders, he won’t be able to complete his military service, which means he’ll have little chance of a job – or even a passport. When the job falls to Pouya, he looks for any way out of doing the deed. There follows a not entirely convincing jail break, and he goes on the run.

In the third story, Birthday, another soldier returns to attend his girlfriend’s birthday in the countryside. After some nude swimming – warning, washing your sins away metaphor at work – he goes to join her and her family, ring in hand. Yet the celebrations are interrupted by the unexpected implications of the death of a family friend.

The final story, Kiss Me, sees a medical student, Darya. return from Germany to visit her aunt and uncle who also live in the middle of nowhere. The uncle looks permanently about to tell her something, but clams up at the last moment. Her persistent questions remain unanswered for most of the segment. In a moment of loaded on with a trowel symbolism, Darya refuses to join a fox hunt as she is unwilling to kill a living creature.

This is a film where not much happens – and it happens very slowly. It runs for 2 ½ hours and feels even longer. I have a feeling that it helps to have read a press pack before you go in – I looked at some of the press reviews and many contain several identical phrases. Without such hints, it’s easy to get lost in the plot – or maybe I was just having a bad day. Whatever, I never felt involved enough to try to feel part of it.

It may also be something to do with your attitude to the short story format – I feel much more at home with novels, which have room to breathe. Each section lasts for half an hour or so, then ends with some sort of twist in the tale. For the twist to have an impact, you really need to have something invested in the characters. But to me, none of them was really interesting enough for me to care. So I could appreciate the artistry, but had no real emotional reaction.

Maybe the problem is that director Mohammad Rasoulof is still officially facing a one year prison sentence in Iran for “spreading propaganda”, and is largely only able to work by allusion. Whereas this works – to a point – in the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci, the necessary lack of clarity does muck about a bit with the artistic impact.

There Is No Evil is clearly on the right side – and he is clearly enraged by the Death Penalty in Iran. One of the interesting aspects of the soundtrack is picking up variations on a theme of the Italian partisan song Bella Ciao – I particularly enjoyed the sparse piano version in a minor key. So I am pleased at the film’s success. But I’m not sure I really needed to actually watch it.

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