Manuscripts Don't Burn: Cannes Review
Defying a 20-year work ban, dissident Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof blasts state censorship in this politically charged murder thriller based on real events.
CANNES – Certain to be seen as an act of provocation by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s censorious regime, director Mohammad Rasoulof's new political thriller debuted in Cannes earlier today. Shot in Iran without permission, and shrouded in secrecy until this week, Manuscripts Don’t Burn bravely defies Rasoulof’s 20-year ban from making films or traveling outside his homeland. Chillingly, cast and crew credits remain under wraps for fear of state retribution. Timely political context alone should guarantee small but committed audiences at future festivals and art-house theaters. But this film also happens to be a fairly gripping thriller, and Rasoulof’s most angry work to date.
The title borrows a much-quoted line from author Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated anti-Soviet satire The Master and Margarita. Which makes sense, because dissidents like Rasoulof and his fellow banned director Jafar Panahi have helped make contemporary Iranian cinema analogous to the films of the latterday USSR, each one forensically decoded by outsiders for their half-buried messages of social critique and political sedition. But there is nothing opaque about Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which bypasses the indirect allegorical style of Rasoulof’s past work to mount a sustained attack on state corruption, violence and censorship in modern-day Iran.
The story is inspired by real events, which Rasoulof has yet to clarify, but they seem likely to be the so-called “Chain Murders” of more than 80 Iranian writers, intellectuals, political activists and ordinary citizens between 1988 and 1998. All had been critical of the Islamic Republic. Among the alleged perpetrators accused by human rights groups were Mostafa Pour Mohammadi and Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ezhei, who later became President Ahmadinejad’s interior and intelligence ministers respectively. This is emphatically not a film that will please the current regime.
The framing story is a day in the life of two low-level state enforcers, Khosrow and Morteza, as they drive into the snowy mountains north of Tehran on a murky mission to interrogate and kidnap a dissident writer named Kasra. Between acts of casual thuggery, Khosrow anxiously phones his wife for news of their sick son’s progress in hospital, fearing that his morally indefensible job will bring divine retribution down on his family. Morteza, the more pragmatic and emotionless of the pair, assures Khosrow that their dirty work is entirely justified under Islamic sharia law.
Within this thriller framework, the multi-strand narrative also incorporates domestic vignettes set among Kasra’s small circle of fellow authors and intellectuals, all living under constant surveillance and intimidation by state security. Some years before, all were witnesses to a failed government plot to murder 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus crash. A former dissident turned state intelligence minister now wants to wipe this event from memory, and is conducting his own clandestine war against the “cultural NATO” whose inconvenient truths could scupper his upward career arc.
On paper, this plot could easily play out as an action-heavy Hollywood conspiracy movie. But in Rasoulof’s careful hands, torture and kidnapping and even murder are presented in chillingly matter-of-fact terms, never sensationalizing the banality of evil. The treatment is naturalistic throughout, with just a few stylized touches – notably a handful of conversations where the dialogue continues even when the character stops talking. Shot on digital video, the color palette is subdued and wintry.
Judged as pure big-screen entertainment, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a little slow and uneven. Some of the domestic scenes feel stagey and talk-heavy, while the fate of some minor characters is left unclear. But the central plot involving Morteza and Khosrow delivers enough suspense to carry the movie’s slacker moments. Allowing the latter a sympathetic paternal side also provides some agreeable moral shading, as does depicting some of the anti-government writers as compromised and egotistical.
Overall, however, the script leaves us in no doubt as to where the real villainy lies: among the murderously corrupt upper echelons of Iranian politics. How the notoriously thin-skinned Tehran establishment will now react is anybody’s guess, given their hysterical tantrums over the comic-book heroics of Argo, but Rasoulof has kicked a hornet’s nest with this film. An unflinching portrait of state-sponsored evil, Manuscripts Don’t Burn feels like the work of an angry artist who has been jailed, censored and harassed too long. This time it’s personal.
Producer: Mohammad Rasoulof
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Writer: Mohammad Rasoulof
Sales company: Elle Driver