'There Is No Evil' ('Sheytan vojud nadarad'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

One fine episode is worth the price of admission.

Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof ('A Man of Integrity') tells four stories about Iranians who refuse to kill, whatever the personal cost.

Banned from filmmaking in Iran but still active, screenwriter and director Mohammad Rasoulof returns to the great moral themes that underlie all his work in There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad), a German/Czech/Iranian co-prod competing at the Berlin Film Festival.

His staunch opposition to the death penalty and to killing in general are urgently repeated in four unrelated stories, which broadcast the message that Iran’s authoritarian regime can be opposed and resisted, in spite of the powerful influence it exerts on people’s lives. Though the message comes across loud and clear, the four tales suffer from being narratively uneven, making the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time seem long indeed.

And yet the first untitled episode about a man who works at night is a perfectly balanced and crafted little jewel that stands out in Rasoulof’s filmography. It promises a very impressive film and it is disappointing that nothing at this level follows it. As things stand, perhaps it would have done better as the culminating final tale, rather than the first.

Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) is an average middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and an impassive face. He lives with his schoolteacher wife, Razieh (Shaghayegh Shourian), and, judging from their constant back-and-forth in the house and car, their relationship is lively and affectionate, even when they’re fighting. He has a pretty little girl who’s a trifle spoiled and an elderly mother for whom they have to shop and clean house. Razieh gets into an argument at the bank and forgets to pay an installment. They’re going to a wedding soon. That night, Heshmat drives to his place of work and performs the job he’s paid to do. Perfectly timed and beautifully acted without any undue emphasis, it makes its point with a shock of recognition, like the best Iranian films have led us to expect. 

The second tale, titled “She said, you can do it”, is not directly related to the first except thematically. Pouya (the expressive young Kaveh Ahangar), a military recruit, wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, in a prison dorm he shares with other soldiers. He has been ordered to hang a prisoner the next morning by pulling the stool out from under him, and his conscience just won’t let him do it. In the highly theatrical setting of the prison, he struggles to find a way out of killing. He talks to his girlfriend on the phone, trying to find someone to pull strings and transfer him out. The other soldiers argue that he’s no better than them; they all have to follow orders and the law; they have no choice — disobedience means court martial and more years in the military, and so on.

Finally the time comes and a compassionate buddy slips him a note that suggests a radical alternative is available to him, if he has the courage to follow through. The problem, from the viewer’s POV, is that this plan seems 100 percent unlikely to succeed.

Third story: “The Birthday.” Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), a young man who looks like Pouya but isn’t him, is also doing his military service. On a three-day leave, he runs through the woods and strips off his uniform, then bathes in a fresh, clear stream in preparation to meeting his fiancee, Nana (Mahtab Servati), and her family. At the end of the tale we realize why he needs to purify himself. Compared with the conscientious objector Pouya of the previous episode, Javad voices a more common attitude toward following military regulations. Nothing, of course, can excuse killing an innocent man.

One would expect the final segment, “Kiss Me,” to build on and consolidate the previous three, but it fails to end the film with a satisfying conclusion. In fact, it’s the weakest of the four, confusing and difficult for non-Iranians to navigate. A handsome but ailing man, Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr), lives on a remote desert hillside with his wife, Zaman (Jilla Shahi). He studied medicine when he was young and helps in local emergencies; she’s a former pharmacist. Both have mysteriously cut off all ties with the world to become beekeepers.

One days they drive to the airport to pick up Bahram’s college-age niece Darya (played by the director’s daughter, Baran Rasoulof), who lives with his brother in Germany and has come to Iran on her first visit. She’s a joyful young woman, but the atmosphere around Bahram and Zaman is heavy with foreboding. Bahram has something important to say to the girl but can’t get it out. When it’s finally revealed, the audience will still worry over the details, considerably diluting the potency of Bahram’s long-kept secret.

Production companies: Filmsiniran, Cosmopol Film, Europe Media Nest
Cast: Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shourian, Kaveh Ahangar, Darya Moghbeli, Alireza Zareparast, Salar Khamseh, Mahtab Servati, Mohammad Valizadegan, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Jila Shahi, Baran Rasoulof
Director, screenwriter: Mohammad Rasoulof
Producers: Mohammad Rasoulof, Kaveh Farnam, Farzad Pak
Executive producer: Farzad Pak
Director of photography: Ashkan Ashkani
Production designer: Saeed Asadi
Costume designer: Afsaneh Sarfejo
Editors: Mohammadreza Muini, Meysam Muini
Music: Amir Molookpour
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Films Boutique
150 minutes