(شیطان وجود ندارد, Sheytân vojūd nadârad)
dir: Mohammad Rasoulof
This is an amazing film. I find it hard to believe that it is exists.
I have not seen every Iranian flick, I’ve probably only seen about twenty in my life, but I’ve never seen one that so explicitly comments on how appalling living in such a regime is, that being the one in place since the Islamic Revolution, and the rule of the Ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guards.
I’ve seen stuff produced outside of Iran, by people who don’t have to fear being locked up or executed, because they have no intention of going back, and hopefully no family members for the authorities to punish. But something like this…
I think the director has been in jail numerous times, for some reason the Revolutionary Guard courts keep finding new reasons to jail him, ban him from making films, ban him from leaving Iran, so, honestly, this is a fucked up way to live and work.
It’s a long film. A very long arsed film, two and a half hours, which is longer that most people can handle if there aren’t explosions and the world ending or being reborn. It needs to be that long, though.
There are four parts to the story, as in, four different sections that are connected thematically but otherwise are independent of each other. They are all about pretty much the same thing: that a state that does evil to its own citizens makes all its citizens morally culpable, because it otherwise doesn’t allow them to live.
The first section is the most baffling, until the brutal punchline, which brings a horrifying clarity to what we’ve been watching. It is exactly 30 minutes long. Within those 30 minutes, we watch a guy go about his day. Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) is just a boring middle-aged guy. Balding, paunchy, drives a shitty car. He picks up his wife and listens to her complain about a bunch of stuff, gossip about another woman. They go to the bank, where his wife has to go in and take money out for him.
The whole time she’s in the bank, he’s double parked in this awkward spot, constantly in people’s way, apologetic, moving his car back and forth to let people through.
They pick up their kid from school, who the dad totally spoils (she is such a brat!), do a bunch of shopping, and then visit the guy’s mum, where they do chores, make her dinner, make sure she’s looked after.
They then have dinner at some pizza place, as demanded by the daughter, where the mum, like a lot of mums in cultures across the world, tries to convince them to eat something healthier, when father and daughter just want to chow down on pizza.
They get home, the guy has a shower, takes some medication, falls asleep like a log.
We even have a scene where he dyes his wife’s hair, because she wanted her highlights touched up before they go to a wedding tomorrow.
You may be asking yourself, what is the goddamn purpose of all of this? This sounds like the most boring bullshit I’ve ever heard of in my whole fucking life! If I wanted to watch a boring person go about their day I’d watch myself, somehow, doing all the same stuff just not in downtown Tehran.
Half a mundane hour in the life of an average, middle-class Iranian? It’s half an hour of screen time, half an hour of our lives, but it’s a whole day in the life of this chap. When the film started, he was leaving work. When his section ends, he is at work again. The alarm woke him at three am, and he drove in through deserted streets.
He does pause, though, at the traffic lights that are turned red. They cycle through their colours, and he does not move for a while, but eventually does. Do we sense reluctance on his part?
At work, he puts on a uniform, waits in a room where music is playing, watching these lights on the wall. Once the lights change into a particular configuration, he presses a button, and looks through a very narrow rectangular window, to see the impact of his action.
We see a line of shoeless, sockless feet, dangling. The feet are twitching, and some liquid, we can assume it’s urine, spills down the feet of the people being executed.
It is true horror.
Iran is infamous for executing more people per year per capita than anywhere else in the world, even in countries with arguably worse and more restrictive / draconian governments (not that there are many of those). The only country that executes more people each year is China. This film is explicitly about the corrosive effect such a statistic must have on the souls of other Iranians, not just the ones touched directly by the executions.
The first section had Heshmat as a state executioner, a man whose bread and butter is the ending of people’s lives, but the other sections, in their own ways, outline the ways in which the state forces the complicity of other people to make them morally culpable in what’s going on.
The second section deals with a bunch of soldiers at a barracks. One of them is freaked out, because where they are, he’s been designated as having to perform an execution of some guy by literally pulling the stool out from under the guy’s feet.
This soldier cannot do it. He fundamentally cannot allow himself to be responsible for ending another person’s life in such a context. Some of the other soldiers try to comfort him, some try to shame him into doing his duty, but mostly, because it’s late at night, they’re irritated that he, being Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), won’t let them sleep.
This part explains a reality about life in Iran for males once they reach a certain age. Mandatory military service is enforced in this fashion: sure, if you want to get a passport and ever be able to leave the country for any reason, you have to do your 18 months / 2 years or whatever it is, but during that time you will be made to execute someone. For something.
The guilt or innocence of the people being executed isn’t the point, and plays no part in the story. The other soldiers tell Pouya to be comforted by the fact that the person he’s going to kill probably did something really bad, but why should that matter? Plus, this is Iran. It’s not exactly renowned for the fairness of its legal system or its adherence to upholding human rights. You can probably be killed for saying something like “I think Allah is maybe not so great?” or for looking at a poster of the Ayatollah and saying “he’s not a hottie”.
Pouya cannot do it, and it makes him so anxious that he gets really irritating. So irritating that he spontaneously stages a hostage taking / jail break like break out of the place where he isn’t specifically the prisoner in question, but he might as well be.
The first part of this section is most compelling, being the argument between the soldiers, and the bleak setting of their room, which seems really unfair. Six guys in one room seems like a recipe for disaster. Where the story ends up, implausible as it might seem, at least embraces the hopefulness of imagining an alternative to having to kill someone personally just because your superiors demand it. It’s just that there’s something almost comical about someone so determined not to execute someone that he’s willing to kill other people in order to avoid having to do it.
The third section, called Birthday, also has a soldier called Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) as its lead, but he’s in a completely different part of Iran, and he is not faced by the prospect of having to execute someone: he’s already done it, multiple times. And, he’s on three days of leave, which all soldiers get whenever they do their grim duty.
He’s come to visit his beloved Nana (Mahtab Servati) (as in, the name ‘Nana’, not his grandma) and her family, on her birthday. There’s not much to celebrate, though. A dear family friend has recently died, and they are all quite overcome. The man who died, Keyvan, only exists as a framed photo now, but his poetic and philosophical words had inspired and intrigued the family for years, and long will his impact be remembered.
It seems that Keyvan came to the attention of the authorities, who found in his political discourse reasons to think he was disloyal to the regime. So of course he was executed.
You’ll never guess who executed him. No, wait, you’ll easily guess, because it’s pretty obvious.
In contrast to the other grim sections, this grim story is set in this lush rural part of Iran which is all autumnal leaves and lush natural surrounds, and while visually it’s not only a relief, but a joy to behold, it goes to show that the moral corruption of the state extends everywhere.
The final section, Kiss Me, being a popular song from, I’m guessing, a long time ago before the revolution, is probably the most confusing in terms of where it’s going. It, too, is set in a rural area, but it’s completely different from the trees and leaves of the previous section. It’s a drier, more agricultural setting, but also more impoverished than the well-to-do family mourning its inspiring friend.
A young woman called Darya (Baran Rasoulof, who just happens to be the director’s daughter, nepotism much?) is visiting some relatives in the sticks. They pick her up from the airport, which is only fair. She, being young, cosmopolitan, well-travelled, well-educated and living in Germany, seems to be blind to the dangers that Iranian society presents.
The relatives are Bahram (Mohammed Seddighimehr) and Zaman (Jilla Shahi), uncle and aunty to the girl, and they all get along well enough. Bahram and Zaman are not hicks in the sticks, but seem to be living lives of quiet desperation in order to stay off someone’s radar. Secrets abound.
We have no idea why Darya’s there, and for a long while I really thought that maybe Bahram’s brother sent his daughter back to the ‘old’ country in order to have her killed, as maybe an honour killing. There are scenes of Bahram cradling a rifle, and it really seemed to me that he was going to wait for a chance to shoot her and bury her where no-one would ever look for her.
I am glad to say I was completely wrong, which was a relief, because the story becomes far more complicated. Bahram, like the soldier we saw in the second section, refused to execute someone, and ended up having to go into hiding. He has lived with the repercussions of his decision, as has his wife. But they’re not the only ones affected.
There is much said and referred to regarding a fox, and its wily nature. Thanks to the magic of programming, this is the second CGI fox that I’ve seen starring in a film this week, the other being the fox in The Green Knight, which at least gets a bunch of lines of dialogue. Here the fox is referred to more obliquely, as in, sure, a fox will kill a bunch of chickens, but that’s just nature. Does the fox really need to be killed in a natural setting where it’s just doing what it can to survive? And then when Bahram brought dogs in to get the fox, they were killed by wolves.
And yet the fox persists.
It’s… heartbreaking to see how this last part of the film is resolved, or at least ends. Nothing really is resolved in any of these stories. Doing the ‘wrong’ thing morally by committing to these acts of state-sanctioned murder never improves anything, but not going along with them either doesn’t bring happiness or safety or more clarity for anyone either. People sacrifice a lot when they go along with it, and also when they don’t. Everyone loses no matter what choices they make, because that’s what the regime does to its own people. The regime always wins, and the people beneath it always lose, either their lives, their souls or the love of the people they hold dear.
The title is somewhat deceptive, but works anyway. The actual title in Farsi is Satan Doesn’t Exist, which means something completely different from there being no evil. Saying “Satan doesn’t exist” means you’re saying, amongst other things, that there is no supernatural being necessary for people to do great acts of evil, because people and regimes are more than capable of doing them on their own.
Because otherwise, this flick that shows us for two and a half hours what evil the Iranian regime perpetrates on its own people, wouldn’t exist either. And it certainly exists, because I saw it with my own disbelieving eyes.
It’s a great, beautiful, disturbing, gut-wrenching film.
9 times I wish there was no evil or viruses out of 10
“If we say no, they destroy our lives.”
- “Your only power is in saying no.” - There Is No Evil