Politics and Plaudits in Berlin

Ehsan Mirhosseini in Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil (2020)

Awards night at the Berlin International Film Festival this past weekend was a little glitzier than it has been in past years. Besides a special Silver Bear presented to celebrate the Berlinale’s seventieth anniversary edition, a fresh round of awards were given to four films in the Encounters competition introduced this year by the new team of festival directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek. For all these changes, the international jury, intentionally or not, upheld a Berlinale tradition, namely, the presentation of the Golden Bear as a political statement.

By selecting Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil for the top prize, the jury, presided over by Jeremy Irons, echoed another jury’s decision in 2015, when the Golden Bear went to Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Like Panahi, Rasoulof has been barred from making films and traveling outside of Iran. When Rasoulof returned home from Cannes in 2017, having won the Un Certain Regard award for A Man of Integrity, authorities confiscated his passport and have been holding on to it ever since. Last July, he was sentenced to a year in prison for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic; fortunately, he was let out on bail.

Rasoulof says that he made There Is No Evil to explore how “autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines.” Four distinct stories, each turning on a twisty revelation, explore the emotional fallout of Iran’s policy of forcing soldiers to carry out executions. Variety’s Peter Debruge points to a report from Amnesty International claiming that more than half of the world’s executions on record in 2017 occurred in Iran. “The number has since dropped,” notes Debruge, “but the country continues to kill its citizens at alarming rates.”

Besides the Golden Bear, There Is No Evil has also won awards from the independent Ecumenical Jury and the Association of German Art House Cinemas. “Not since [Krzysztof Kieślowski’s] A Short Film About Killing has a filmmaker produced such a thrilling case against capital punishment, an enraging, enthralling, enduring testament to the oppressed,” writes Ed Frankl at the Film Stage. Some, though, will find it difficult to disagree with Screen’s Lee Marshall, who argues that as a whole, the film “can feel loose and uneven.” After the first and most effective of the four somewhat predictable tales, the second, set inside a prison, is a stagey mess. But there’s no denying the sleek beauty of Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography or the sincerity of the characterizations. “What I can observe from my own story,” Rasoulof tells IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “is that the satisfaction that you receive once you resist oppression and despotism can be higher than the price you have to pay.”

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