In his review of Micheal Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Roger Ebert wrote about how, unlike westerners, people in Asia or Africa are largely complacent about tragedy. “There is more resignation when terrible things happen,” he wrote.
But Mohammad Rasoulof‘s Golden Bear winner There Is No Evil (2021) shows people outside the West suffering despite this complacency.
There Is No Evil comprises of four segments — each can be a short film, but this is not a Netflix anthology, thankfully — centred around the theme of the death penalty in Iran and the moral guilt (or lack thereof) in the people involved with the practice.
The film showcases the sentiments of nationals who aren’t inherently vengeful but have made their peace with capital punishments taking place amidst them, just like one would tolerate a nasty sibling. The first short, at its 32nd minute, gives us perhaps the most disturbing 30 seconds this kind of a film can offer. It jerks us from the lull of everyday domesticity into horror so violently, that the flash leaves us with no time to recollect the rationality and the reasoning we delude ourselves with in order to tolerate such ‘lawful’ violence.
The segments also reflect various mental stages of a person (all men, in this case) involved in delivering the death penalty. The first short highlights a kind of middle-age resignation, an inertia, with the practice; the second endorses youthful rebellion, however aimless; the final two shorts hinge on the short and long-term consequences of exercising (or shunning) moral strength.
Saying more would be spoiling the film. It would be better to talk about the context in which I saw the film. There has been a string of arrests in Iran recently of some of the most internationally-renowned Iranian filmmakers, including Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof himself. At this moment, certain jails are doused in the spirit of creative defiance.
Under this context, the moral dilemma of There Is No Evil becomes chillingly prescient. In all four segments of the film, while subservience to authority is met with abhorrence or ritualistic repentance, defying the same has yielded no peace or appreciation. Unlike the saviours of western cinema — from superheroes to war heroes — here, the men who refuse to pull the plug on someone’s life are denied any celebration for their act.
Why resist then? The answer is simple for Ebert’s westerners: we all carry a moral weight of our choices; there is no room for ambiguity here. That’s why Schindler’s List feels like such a simplistic film. It makes us all feel we are all on the right side of history. But in the East, we are used to the kind of moral transgressions that the West considers infrangible.
So, in the third world where many moral transgressions don’t carry much weight, should refusing to facilitate capital punishment, in a system where life is disposable anyway, be called heroism? Besides, individuals anywhere, shouldn’t have to carry the burden of morality completely by themselves; individuals who do pull that fatal plug can be excused, for they are just pawns in an idealistic game to chase moral perfection in society.
Or is the true motive of the ‘heroes’ of There Is No Evil something beyond the scope of unfussy western ethics? For these men, the refusal to participate in the ultimate, most physical show of power by a regime, is a subtle act of anarchy, born out of the impotence that citizens of all despotic regimes suffer from. It’s the way to have their voices heard, to feel some freedom and to communicate the anger of the damned.
We can assume that Mohammad Rasoulof wants us to view his people without such complexities. Iran may have had a history of dispatching men who were barely men, to clear minefields during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, but there is no deadness in its people. Many care. It is carelessness that is the true evil.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.