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The devil is in the system

DEATH PENALTY: The Berlin winner There is no devil is a strong statement against Iran's state executions and a morally complex depiction of living in a totalitarian society.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

The Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof has for several years met strong opposition from the home country's authorities, who have sentenced him to prison sentences as well as travel and work bans. Nevertheless, he regularly comes out with new movies. And where many other Iranian filmmakers have become masters of the art of suggestion and allegory, social criticism has become increasingly apparent in Rasoulof's films.

His films are usually selected for the world's most important festivals and have been awarded several prizes in Cannes . His latest feature film There is no devil, which is displayed digitally in the main competition on Film from the Sør festival before it is scheduled to have its regular cinema premiere in the new year, Gullbjørnen won the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. Rasoulof himself could not be present at the festival, as he was also prevented from traveling to Film fra Sør three years ago.

Stories of the death penalty

There is no devil is an anthology film, in the sense that it consists of four separate stories that all deal with death penalty. Rasoulof chose this format because shorter recording periods made it easier to avoid the censorship and restrictions he is imposed on and film in secret. It also gave him the opportunity to shed light on several different aspects of the topic. The four episodes – or short stories, if you will – are partly also genre-different, but There is no devil is nevertheless an impressive solid film.

The less you know about the action in the segments, the stronger experience you will have when watching the film, so I will refrain from reproducing the plots. It also takes quite a long time before the theme itself is established, as this only happens in a surprising turn at the end of the first story. This scene, which I have probably already revealed is based on withheld information, also clearly confirms that this is a film by a very gifted film narrator.

Some believe that one has a moral obligation to refuse to perform such an act, even in a distinctly authoritarian society such as Iran.

Suffering and principles

There is no devil is not directly about those who are sentenced to death, nor about those who sentence people to death. Instead, the film focuses on the people who are put in charge of the executions, such as removing the chair of the person to be hanged. Often these conscripts are young men who will have significant difficulties if they do not perform the task that will cause another person to lose their life. Some hide behind the fact that they only carry out orders, and that the convicted person has probably earned the punishment – while for others the torment is almost unbearable. And some believe that one has a moral obligation to refuse to perform such an act, even in a distinctly authoritarian society such as Iran.

If you refuse, it means that you leave the unpleasant task and the same torments to someone else instead – and in the end the execution will be carried out anyway. Unless everyone wants to stick to the same principle, of course, something that is unlikely to be true. Firmness of principle may not have room for that type of probability assessments, but this also becomes part of the pangs of conscience.

The banality of evil

With his partly very different stories and his knowledgeable grasp of storytelling can There is no devil give associations to the nineties classic Pulp Fiction, but here Quentin Tarantino's postmodern playfulness and "coolness" have been replaced by an important and constantly relevant theme. The stories contain several echoes of the harrowing speech about the executioner's work from Jens Bjørneboe # s Powder Tower, which in a somewhat abbreviated form was included in the stage set-up of The history of bestiality at the Norwegian Theater this autumn. Equally relevant is Hannah Arendt's description of what she called the banality of evil, a theme that is already addressed in the depictions of daily life in the film's first segment.

There is no devil deals with both people who more or less accept the task of executioner, and people who refuse to perform it. Taken together, the film is a strong contribution against the death penalty in general as well as against Iran's many state executions. However, it is also a complex and thought-provoking description of living in a totalitarian society, and then Iran in particular.

The devil in the system

"People are either oppressed, or they are oppressors," said one of the characters in Rasoulof's previous feature film. The man against the stream, with international title A man of integrity. He was allowed to make it on the condition that the film should not be too gloomy, and is about a man who fights against being corrupted in a thoroughly corrupt society. The quote summarizes much of the film's message and is also relevant to There is no devil. In the new film, however, the gray areas are more numerous, not least in situations where the oppressed are required to perform the oppressors' dirtiest tasks. The Kafkaesque feeling of alienation from the system is also prominent in both films.

If there is no devil, it must be because one pulverizes or disclaims responsibility for evil – without that being what the film really conveys. Mohammad Rasoulof still seems to speak for the principled, even when it is almost impossible to maintain his moral integrity. Hopefully he will not let himself be stopped, not even after this film.

There is no devil appears in the main competition on Movies from the South, which is arranged digitally  from November 26 to December 6. The film will have its regular cinema premiere in January.

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