‘There Is No Evil’: razor-sharp Iranian morality narratives with political implications

Last month, Iran saw its first public execution in two years. Just as during the heyday of the revolution, the regime let the body dangle visibly high from a crane for all to see. According to human rights groups, there is also a wave of executions currently underway behind the high walls and steel doors of Iranian prisons. At least 251 people have been executed since the beginning of 2022.

The regime has a well-oiled death machine, maintained by judges and jailers, the executioner and his minions. As well as conscripts on corvee: they sometimes have to march the condemned to the gallows, tie the noose and – as appears from the four-part There Is No Evil – kick the stool from under them. Although Iran also has industrial facilities where an official sipping his instant coffee presses a button and looks through a hatch to see if everything is going according to plan: the breaking of the neck, the aftershocks, the streams of urine that splash down the drain.

There Is No Evil, a very impressive Iranian four-part series on the death penalty, won the Golden Bear of Berlin. That was already during the Berlinale of 2020, but due to the corona pandemic, the release in the Netherlands was repeatedly postponed. Director Mohammad Rasoulof was unable to receive the prize in Berlin at the time due to a travel ban. The situation did not improve: he has been in jail since last month.

The price of resistance

Rasoulof had been sentenced to a year in prison for some time, to be collected when the regime suits. It doesn’t stop him from making razor-sharp moral tales with political implications. His previous, A Man of Integrity, won the prestigious Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes in 2017. In it, Reza, a straightforward college student who once disappointedly retired to a village to raise goldfish, is forced to get his hands dirty when a local power clan threatens his existence. Reza gradually feels forced into corruption, abuse of power and dirty tricks – and you stand right behind him as he jettisons his principles. A political talent. That’s how you win in Iran.

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To what extent should a citizen adapt to a corrupt, despotic regime? What is the price of adaptation, what of resistance? These are also the questions Rasoulof poses in four-part There Is No Evil stilt. Again without ready-made answers, but with all the more perverse choices. In the first episode, we stare into the impassive face of 40-year-old Heshmat for over half an hour as he trudges through his daily routine. Picking up wife and daughter, bickering, grocery shopping, taking care of disabled mother, eating pizza. Brave middle class, good chest, but with a morbid secret, it turns out.

In the second segment, a kind of thriller, conscript Pouya panics because he has to assist with an execution tomorrow morning. Other soldiers talk to him: if not him, then someone else?

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In sad romances Birthday Private Javad has three days off to celebrate the birthday of his beloved Nana. Her family appears to be in mourning over the execution of a dissident family friend. In the mini melodrama Kiss Me Darya, who grew up in Germany, visits her critically ill uncle Mansour, who once made a decision that also turned her life upside down, she now discovers.

Mourning March

They are miniatures full of echoes and reflections. Partisan song ‘Bella Ciao’ – popular thanks to Netflix series The Money Heist and of the Iranian street protest – first blares exuberantly, to return later as a funeral march.

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Rasoulof allowed himself to There Is No Evil inspired when he saw an official on the street who had once brutally questioned him. He wanted to speak to him angrily but decided to follow him, only to discover that he was an ordinary, boring family man. Still goes There Is No Evil not so much about the banality of evil.

Criticism, free will, clear conscience – that’s all well and good, but can you use force to resist state violence? Should children suffer from your principled position? Good and evil are not ready-made recipes found in sacred texts or law books. They are personal struggles, choices, each with their own bad consequences and guilt, so learns There Is No Evil. Both opportunists and idealists are presented with a bill.



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