NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.

I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998)

Having started a Czech-themed week of films on the blog, I expect this won’t be the only review I’ll be posting of a Věra Chytilová film, given that her work looms large, certainly in my own appreciation of Czech cinema, though she is also one of the key filmmakers of the post-war period in that country. Today I’m covering one of her later works, a strange and darkly satirical film confronting rape culture, shot on video.

Well, this is an intriguing film, made some decades after Chytilová gained fame for Daisies (1966). Shot on video, it goes for a sort of slapstick style comedy, with two foolish men in the lead who are largely objects of abject amusement for their idiocy, but who — like many men — are, despite this, capable of inflicting great harm. The set-up of the film is that the two men (one a government minister, the other an advertising man) pick up Lenka (Zuzana Stívínová), whose car has broken down, and then rape her (and even talk about killing her), an unsettling and violent act and not played as a joke, but which is somehow integrated into the film’s aesthetic — the film after all starts with graphic footage of pigs being castrated before cutting straight into a sex scene. Taking us back to those opening shots, the woman is a vet and so she drugs and castrates the men, which cues up the remainder of the film, as these two fools return to their ordinary lives, which end up intersecting with Lenka’s life in various ways. Of course, their threatening nature doesn’t abate following the castration, and part of the film’s satirical viewpoint is just how little power women have in this situation when confronted with ingrained patriarchy and deeply-running societal reserves of misogyny. Rape is not, therefore, a joke in this film, but the idea of being able to get justice for it (however it may be administered) sort of is.

Traps film posterCREDITS
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová, Tomáš Hanák, Eva Kacírková, Michal Lázňovský and David Vávra; Cinematographer Štěpán Kučera; Starring Tomáš Hanák, Miroslav Donutil, Zuzana Stívínová; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 21 February 2019.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

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