'Ballad of a White Cow': Film Review | Berlin 2021

Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
A slightly contrived, but still affecting, drama.

The widow of a man wrongfully executed for murder seeks justice in all the wrong places in Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam’s Iranian drama.

Adding another strong voice to the chorus of anti-capital-punishment films coming out of Iran is Ballad of a White Cow (Ghasideyeh gave sefid), a drama almost entirely centered on the wife of a condemned man who is wrongfully executed for murder in the opening scene. Played with huge amounts of feminine dignity by Maryam Moghaddam, who co-directed with Behtash Sanaeeha, the widow Mina is shown to be refreshingly capable of raising her deaf daughter on her own and navigating the minefield of a highly misogynistic society — and even (gasp) of finding love.

But as hostility against Mina builds from her family, neighbors and the authorities, disaster looms and the story grows more suspenseful, teetering on the edge of melodrama. Fortunately, the realism of the acting and the classic, restrained camerawork keep things on a believable path. Its bow in Berlin competition should open a few doors for this white cow.

The first shots of a huge, modern prison encircled by walls and surrounded by Tehran’s towering mountains speak symbolically of a whole society caught in a trap of its own devising. In tears, Mina visits Babak for the last time behind an iron door. As the film will show, he’s not the only victim of the country’s freely applied death penalty.

A year later finds Mina working on a factory assembly line. When she picks up her daughter Bita (Avin Purraoufi) from school, their tender relationship is communicated by looks and sign language. Mina hides the truth about Babak, however, telling Bita her dad has gone far away on a long journey.

Those around Mina bluntly advise her to forget him and accept God’s will. Too late, his judges express their regret at making such an unfortunate mistake as killing the wrong man. In a telling exchange between two judges, one reminds the other that it’s a sin to question the death penalty: It’s in the Qu’ran.

For Mina, a private apology is not enough. She demands a public reckoning, and starts on a one-woman campaign to take the case to the court of appeals. The quaint custom of having the real murderer's relatives pay “blood money” to the injured party promises to enrich her when it is finally paid, though the in-laws seem very interested in getting their hands on it. Her vaguely menacing and inappropriate brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimisam) threatens her with lawsuits in the name of his off-screen, never-glimpsed father, who “refuses to understand” how she and Bita can live on their own.

Then, a miracle occurs: A sad-eyed stranger named Reza (Alireza Sanifar) knocks on their door and offers them money, which he claims he owed Babak. He drives them around in his expensive car and rents a spacious apartment to Mina for a song. Reza, whose identity is revealed to the audience early on, is a weak man who hangs on Mina for moral support while he masks his real identity. The audience will be on red alert but not Mina, who naively allows him into her life and even begins to have feelings for him (expressed by suddenly putting on lipstick). At this point, another family tragedy occurs that really feels like too much.

As the plot twists pile up, DP Amin Jafari stays cool with a carefully balanced palette of whites and light grays, straight-on shots and minimal camera movement, making each scene a pleasure to look at.

And finally, what’s the cow got to do with it? The surreal image of a bovine standing in the middle of prison yard between two gender-separated rows of men and women would have felt more at home in a Mani Haghighi film. It is linked to a verse from the Qu’ran and seems to carry an anti-violence message that is probably more easily decipherable by an Iranian audience.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Filmsazan Javan, Caracteres Productions
Cast: Maryam Moghaddam, Alireza Sanifar, Pourya Rahimisam, Avin Purraoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour
Directors: Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam
Screenwriters: Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam, Mehrdad Kouroshnia
Producers: Gholamreza Mousavi, Etienne de Ricaud
Director of photography: Amin Jafari
Production, costume designer: Atoosa Ghalamfarsaie
Editor: Ata Mehrad, Behtash Sanaeeha
World sales: Totem Films
105 minutes