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'There Is No Evil' Bravely Tells The Stories Of Hostages To A Wicked Society

Nicholas Kemp
Kino Lorber Team

A new movie from Iran called There Is No Evil won the top prize at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Iran did not allow its director to attend, and in fact, his films have never been shown in Iran. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz says this is one of the most courageous films he’s ever seen.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s four-part, ironically titled There Is No Evil starts in a dark parking garage that right off gives you the willies. The tension grows as a man drives down a long aisle and a curving ramp. But this film is no American crime picture or spy thriller.

The country of Iran may be in the grip of serious tyranny, but Iranian filmmakers are still making the most challenging movies in the world. They go head on at the vicious hypocrisies of censorship, religious fanaticism and corruption. Mohammad Rasoulof is among the bravest of them. His 2013 film Manuscripts Don’t Burn is about the state-sanctioned murders of dissident writers and intellectuals. A Man of Integrity, from 2017, is less direct — it’s about the corruption of a rural irrigation syste, but implies the dishonesty of the entire Iranian government.

You might call There Is No Evil a capital punishment film, but capital punishment films are about crimes, and how the condemned people are usually innocent. There Is No Evil gives no attention to what those about to die have or have not done, or what crimes may have been committed. The film never shows the supposed criminals, except for one image of the feet of a group of people hanged. This film is about what executions do to the people who, as the grim saying goes, “pull out the stool” to complete the hanging. Yet each of the stories pictures human life — none are lectures, but they recognize that moral questions are part of the lives we lead.

The four stories are about individual execution workers, if you want to call them that. One simply endures, two who are forced to do it run away — with different outcomes — and one is a dying man years later whose life has been cursed by what he did, and the consequences continue to fall on his grown daughter. There Is No Evil confronts its characters and its viewers with the most profound moral dilemmas.

The first, brilliant story called “There Is No Evil” shows a family man. He is the one who drives in the garage. He works at night, comes home, rests, and then picks up his wife at the school where she teaches. She chatters; they go to the bank; she complains to her husband. They pick up their young daughter at her school, who scolds him for coming late and badgers him to get her a pizza.

They shop at a full-stocked grocery store. They visit his mother. It is a day full of events that are typical here as well as in Iran. Then you get a glimpse of what he does at that night job.

Now that the audience has lost its innocence, the next three stories are more direct. Soldiers who will be punished if they do not “pull out the stool” weigh the immorality of doing that against what will happen to them if they don't — it’s the question of principle versus personal desires. In the third story, a young man is so distraught about confessing to his girlfriend just before her birthday party that he strips naked and dives into a river, trying cleanse himself.

The last and beautiful story is about a doctor who left medicine in the city to raise bees in the desert. His agony for years has been what to tell his daughter and when.

There Is No Evil goes to what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” No leering villains here. Its about average human beings trapped by the machinations of an evil society which is faceless and bureaucratic and protected. But these execution workers have no such camouflage. They are hostages to a wicked society that rules by fear and murder. And these average people suffer forever.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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