Berlinale 2020 review: There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof)

An unexpected encounter sparked the making of Mohammad Rasoulof’s seventh feature film There Is No Evil. As he was crossing the street in his hometown Tehran he spotted one of his interrogators. Having been arrested and imprisoned twice for his work as a filmmaker and banned from leaving the country, Rasoulof knows what it is to live in an authoritarian state. A state that also applies the death penalty. But who are the state henchmen, and how do they reconcile their jobs with their lives? His former nemesis, as he observed him for a while, did not seem some evil monster to Rasoulof. Still, to what level are people to be held accountable for carrying out the orders of despots? Befehl ist befehl, as the German saying goes (this is Berlin after all), but does that absolve people from the evil that they have done?

There Is No Evil is split into four stories that are all connected by this theme. In the first story, which shares the film’s title, Heshmat is hectored by his wife about his wages. He does more night shifts than his co-workers, so why doesn’t he get paid more? They’re an otherwise seemingly happy couple though, as they clean Heshmat’s mother’s home together and treat their young daughter to pizza and ice cream. From Heshmat’s demeanour though, we can feel a secret hanging over them.

In She Said, “You can do it” Pouya has just started his two years of mandatory military service. If he gets through this without problems he can fulfill his dream of leaving Iran with his girlfriend, a budding musician. But now he has been given the task of executing a prisoner, and he is trying everything he can to get out from under it.

Birthday sees Javad use his three-day leave from service to visit Nana and her family for the girl’s birthday. They are in love, and he plans to propose to her. As he arrives though, a sadness hangs over the family: a close friend was just killed by the authorities, accused of being an enemy of the state.

The final story, Kiss Me, has middle-aged couple Bahram and Zaman living in the remote countryside. Darya, the daughter of Bahram’s good friend Masoud, comes over from Germany to stay with the couple for a few weeks. This meeting will change all of their lives forever.

The first thing that stands out from these stories is the fact that the ones carrying out the death sentence in Iran are mostly people who are in the obligatory military service. If you refuse, your time in service is lengthened, and in a worst-case scenario you will not get an honorable discharge, which means you can’t get a passport or driver’s license and life in Iran will become much more difficult. Within this framework, the actions of the people in these stories take on a multi-faceted nuance that lends a deep humanity to them. It’s only the first story that stands out in this regard, as Heshmat is the only one whose relation to executing people is not through his military service. And to be honest, it is also the only story of the four where you know where it’s going from early on, whereas the other ones keep you on your toes for most of their running time.

With There Is No Evil, Rasoulof has created an interesting and deeply human set of stories around a deeply un-human act: that of killing another person. What this does to someone is examined elegantly and with warmth. None of the stories could be expanded to feature length, so making it a set of short stories is a good decision. It does mean the film runs a solid two-and-a-half hours, which is a bit long to get the point across. But with a strong cast and some good mise-en-scene work, in particular in the final two stories (where the outdoor setting gives him a hand), Rasoulof has added another fine film to his already impressive oeuvre of humanist but also fiercely political, almost angry stories.

Photo copyright: Cosmopol Film