Ballade vor der weißen Kuh / Ballad Of a White Cow

Directors: Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha (Iran, France). Year of Release: 2022

Iran, present day. Mina’s husband Babak has been executed for a murder which he didn’t commit. A year after he was killed, the authorities announce that they got the wrong man. The bureaucrats responsible say that they’re very sorry, but it must have been “Allah’s will”. They promise substantial compensation from the State, but this requires a string of meetings with jobsworths, each of whom passes the buck to someone else. Not surprizingly, Mina starts to get worn down.

With no wage from her husband and a child to support, Mina is forced to carry on working on the assembly line at the local milk factory. Her landlord’s wife is sympathetic, telling her that it doesn’t matter if she can’t deliver her rent on time. Meanwhile her brother-in-law delivers increasingly insistent messages from Babak’s family saying that she should give up her job and any semblance of independence.

Mina’s daughter Biba is mute, and they communicate through sign language as Mina mouths the words. Eager to protect her daughter, she says that Babak has gone far away to study, but he will return. Because of work commitments, Mini can’t take Biba out to the pictures as often as she’d like, so the highlight of the day is often when Biba chooses a video for them to watch – often of a film starring Shirley Temple.

Then, out of the blue, a man turns up on Mina’s doorstep, introducing himself as Reza, an old friend of Babak to whom he owed money. We soon learn what Mina doesn’t – that Reza is one of the judges who condemned her husband to death and is now filled with remorse. Reza’s son is dead as an indirect result of his misjudgement, so donating to Mina doubly helps to assuage his grief.

Reza’s visit is not without its consequences. The landlord’s wife, who has been so understanding so far, can’t counter her husband’s disgust that Mina received a male visitor to whom she was not related. Mina is given until the end of the month to find somewhere else to live. A housing agent tells her that no-one is prepared to offer accommodation to single women, people with cats or dogs or drug addicts.

Reza steps in again and says that Mina can stay in one of his flats. She’s reticent at first, but doesn’t really have a choice. Before long, she’s moved in, and Reza often comes to visit. Nothing like that happens – it’s not that sort of film. But a lot of time is spent with Reza trying, and failing, to articulate just what his relationship with Mina’s husband was.

There are some films that hang on the single point of people not being honest with each other. They provoke frustration in an audience which understands that the tension could be broken by someone just stating the truth. This device has been used many times to fill out a 30 minute soap opera episode. In a film that last nearly 2 hours, it starts to challenge our patience.

The first half of the film offers us all sorts of interesting ideas – about capital punishment, about women’s rile in society, about the nature of remorse and do on. I can anticipate and fear US-American viewers seeing it as an indictment of a society which still has the death penalty and where women are treated as second class citizens (Mr. Kettle, meet Ms. Pot), but the values here are more universal.

Besides which, the death penalty issued to Babak is largely incidental to the plot, which is less about whether it is a good or bad thing and more about the way in which survivors deal with its consequences. If push came to shove, you would reluctantly say that this is a film which stands in opposition to state executions but, for better or worse, it is not a polemical film.

Like its storyline, Ballade vor der weißen Kuh’s scenery is bleak. Much of it is badly lit, and filmed with the background of tatty curtains. I get it – we’re not in a palace here, but sometimes the grimness is a little overwhelming. Nothing much is happening, and it’s taking place with such a miserable that you’re excused wishing things to come to a sudden end.

Above all, the failure to go anywhere means that its second half drags. Mina has little agency, partly because working-class women are allowed little agency (and not just in Iran). This means that the film scores high on realism, but low on dramatic tension. No Prince Charming is going to suddenly appear to save things.

Ballade vor der weißen Kuh is well-intentioned, and it’s great that films like this exist. It just isn’t that much fun to watch, that’s all.

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