According to various human rights groups, Iran is believed to execute the most people per capita of any country in the world. The list of crimes subject to capital punishment seems endless, everything from murder to homosexuality to apostasy, and when the country’s celebrated filmmakers, whether accepted or banned, address the subject they tend to focus less on the condemned than on the system itself. One of the most startling depictions of capital punishment was in Saeed Roustayi’s 2019 film Just 6.5, which was not only allowed to be screened in Iran, but went on to be the biggest non-comedy box office hit in the country’s history. The movie is not about the death penalty. It is a police thriller about the various means, both legal and extralegal, that the narcotics forces use to bring drug pushers to justice, and much of it takes place in Iran’s notoriously crowded prisons. Roustayi didn’t flinch from anything, including the methods used for mass execution, which are truly horrific. Perhaps it’s because the people who are being killed are seen in the movie to be addicts and dealers that the authorities felt it was OK to release the movie as it is—it certainly could be seen as a deterrent of sorts—but, then again, the authorities banned Mohammad Rasolouf’s 2020 Berlinale winner, There Is No Evil, whose depiction of mass hangings wasn’t as graphic. What they objected to was Rasolouf’s overall theme, which is that the death penalty destroys the souls of the people who, as the movie so colorfully puts it in its four separate stories, “pull the stool out” from under the prisoners. By extension, the entire nation’s soul is compromised.
Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s Ballad of a White Cow isn’t as accomplished as Rasolouf’s film, but it does attempt to come to grips with the moral destruction wrought by state-sanctioned murder. Whereas Rasolouf dealt directly with the executioners, Moghaddam and Sanaeeha take a wider look at the bureaucracy that oversees the justice system carrying out these killings, but they do so in a manner that allows for a more nuanced dramatic reading of the issue. Moghaddam herself plays Mina, a single mother whose husband has been executed for killing a moneylender. A year after his death, Mina and her brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimisam) are summoned to the justice ministry’s chambers where they are told that a mistake was made, and that the real killer of the moneylender has confessed. (Mina’s husband did attack the moneylender, but the fatal blow was delivered by another man who showed up later with, presumably, a similar grudge.) At first devastated and then righteously incensed, Mina demands an apology in addition to the meager compensation she receives, but none is forthcoming from the stolid bureaucrat, who simply says it was “God’s will,” which turns out to be a leitmotif in explaining many of the hardships that Mina and her 9-year-old daughter, Bita (Aviv Puffaoufi), who is deaf and unaware that her father is dead, suffer at the hands of Iranian society, which cannot countenance a fatherless family, regardless of the circumstances that made it so.
Struggling to pay the rent with a low-paying job in a milk factory and staving off her brother-in-law, who believes she is hiding her dead husband’s money, Mina is at her wit’s end when a mysterious man shows up at her door saying he is an old friend of her husband’s who has come to repay an ancient debt. This middle aged man, Reza (Alirez Sanifar), gradually insinuates himself into Mina’s life, helping her find a new apartment when she’s kicked out of her old one and endearing himself to Bita, who has come to understand without being told that her father is never coming back from “abroad.” Meanwhile, the bureaucracy grinds on and while Mina does exact some satisfaction, she is continually set upon by other forces, not least of which is her in-laws, who now want custody of Bita. Reza, as it turns out, can help there, too.
Plot-wise, Ballad of a White Cow often shortchanges its characters’ motivations: The viewer may wonder why Mina doesn’t see through Reza’s subterfuge given how intelligent and even hard-headed she is portrayed to be. Moreover, Moghaddam and Sanaeeha give Reza a back story that seems conveniently and conventionally tragic, thus setting an unsubtle dramatic tone that’s retrofitted to justify Mina’s burgeoning feelings for him. Nevertheless, as a snapshot of Iranian society the movie has the power to infuriate, thus reinforcing its main point, which is that the death penalty is so easy to apply here because the people it nominally protects are so cold. In that sense, it conveys the banality of evil behind the system more forcefully than does Rasolouf’s film. In one scene, Mina visits a realtor whose office is modern and flashy and who tells her in a matter-of-fact way that none of the landlords he represents will rent to a widow. Your first impulse is to laugh because the cruelty seems so automatic.
In Persian. Opens Feb. 18 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
Ballad of a White Cow home page in Japanese