There Is No Evil (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof) opens with deceptive quietness, following mild-mannered husband and father Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) as he goes about the mundane, familiar tasks of his day: picking his wife up from work, joking around with his precocious young daughter, caring for his ailing mother-in-law. And then, without warning, the film’s benign tone abruptly snaps. Heshmat, pottering softly around his work kitchen, pushes a button and five pairs of legs are suddenly, brutally, suspended in mid-air, the taut silence broken only by the creak of the ropes and the slow trickle of urine down their feet. It is a chilling bait and switch, a deliberately calculated sleight of hand, yet there is very little that is illusory about There Is No Evil’s approach. In a country with the second highest execution rate in the world, the human and the inhumane are inextricably enmeshed.
This is, in many ways, the central tenet of Rasoulof’s extraordinary anthology film. Following four seasoned and novice executioners working under Iran’s violent and autocratic regime, Rasoulof’s narrative structure centres the affective experience of the individuals caught up in Iran’s abhorrent punitive system. Heshmat, whose work at the prison is just another middle-class job to provide for his family. Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), a young conscripted soldier ordered to pull the chair out beneath one of the (roughly) 200 hangings that take place in Iran each year. Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), another soldier on leave to visit his girlfriend, where the ramifications of his activities in the army comes to an abrupt head. Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr), hiding from his past in Iran’s rural, arid countryside. What does it do to a people, There Is No Evil asks, to live under the ever-present, stifling fog of such state violence? What does it do to its executioners, their actions a mere blood-stained flash in an otherwise uncannily recognisable routine of domesticity and affection?
Through this deliberate emphasis on the personal and the quotidian, Rasoulof posits a relentless challenge to the Iranian regime, crafting a cinematic act of anti-state resistance that is rooted in the will and experience and suffering of the people. It is an anthology series in the truest sense, with no overlap between the stories, yet each chapter builds on the last, another aftershock in a society crumbling under the weight of this pervasive, capillary brutality, the machinations of the state the epicentre of every new tale of physical and psychology cruelty. It is a cruelty that Rasoulof himself is all too familiar with. Convicted of creating and spreading anti-state propaganda by the Revolutionary Court of Iran in 2020, Rasoulof was banned from leaving the country and from making films for two years, joining the ever-growing rank of Iranian directors persecuted by the regime, and rendering There Is No Evil an act of anti-state resistance in both medium and message.
Notably, for a film about capital punishment, there is astonishingly little focus on the death penalty’s direct victims. Legs dangle in the air, a photograph is placed at a memorial, a half-dazed man stumbles around in handcuffs—short, sharp shocks of visibility that keep There Is No Evil situated within its violent context. But, in Rasoulof’s film, everyone is a victim of this constant spectre of violence. His direction hones in on the psychological and emotional toll that the death penalty takes, even for those not condemned under it: a tableau of soldiers sitting numbly in their barracks, the camera framing the four walls that theatrically enclose them; a close-up of a hand trembling as the abstraction of the system is brought unbearably close to home.
Central to Rasoulof’s examination of collective victimhood are the thousands of young men conscripted into Iran’s army each year for mandatory military service, who are given little choice as to their involvement with the system. “Your power is in saying no,” the mother of Javad’s girlfriend tells him, yet There Is No Evil is masterful at complicating this binary of heroism and complicity, refusing the narrative that shifts the burden of moral responsibility from the state onto the citizen. “Laws are laws,” one of Pouya’s fellow soldiers snaps. “This is prison. You’re a soldier in Iran. Whatever the top dogs say, you do”. His words might seem cowardly, yet within them is an honest and undeniable reflection of the topographies of power in Iran’s socio-political structures.
The victims of the death penalty aren’t shown and nor is the apparatus of the state, yet its effects are felt throughout. In the film’s opening scene, Heshmat leaves his as-yet unknown work, dragging a heavy bag to his car that is moments later revealed to be a sack of rationed rice provided by the prison. Heshmat and his wife later bicker about collecting Heshmat’s pay-check from the bank. Both Pouya and Javad’s annual leave—a moment of respite from their mandatory military service and a chance for reunion with their loved ones—is contingent on them carrying out an execution. One of Pouya’s fellow soldiers offers to replace him in exchange for money to get his desperately ill sister treatment. Politicians, leaders and high-up administrators may not be depicted, yet this narrative lacuna is palpable with the state’s latent presence: fragile infrastructures and neglectful welfare systems designed to facilitate complicity.
There is a familiar relevance to Rasoulof’s examination of state corruption and violence that rings universally true, particularly in this past year, yet this is also a film that is Iranian to its very core. A traditional animal fable frames Bahram’s moral and narrative arc, while an occasional propensity towards melodrama—one of Iranian cinema’s most beloved genres— fluently articulates the heightened emotional anguish of these stories. A strong sense of place suffuses the cinematography: Tehran’s infamous traffic and the country’s stunning countryside filling the screen. It is an aching cultural specificity that speaks to the weight of the failed revolution, the forty years and counting of a suffocating, unwanted regime. Diaspora is, heartbreakingly, everywhere: Pouya and his girlfriend making plans to leave for Austria, Bahram’s niece returning to the country after twenty years spent in Germany.
Yet there are moments of joy too—their own powerful form of resistance—that offer a lyrical celebration of what Iran might be without horrifying systemic oppression, an ode to the shoots that might grow between the cracks. In one devastating, exhilarating scene, two characters sing along at the top of their voices to the Italian protest folk song ‘Bella Ciao’, an anthem of liberation and the might of the people. It crystallises the scene, and There Is No Evil more broadly, as an act of protest, a cinematic work of quiet, determined revolution. Through each profoundly human strand of its narrative, There Is No Evil asks what our moral responsibility is to each other. But it also reminds us, with fierce clarity, where our anger should go.
Anahit Behrooz is an arts journalist and film critic based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in Extra Teeth, Girls on Tops, and The List among others.
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