In the midst of Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s drama “A Man With Integrity” (completed in 2017, opening here this Friday), the main character meets a friend in Tehran, a woman whose job as a translator faces severe government restrictions. Her husband, a teacher and writer, is a political prisoner who faces a six-year sentence for his writings. The couple is oppressed in a way that evokes Rasoulof’s situation: since 2010, he has been arrested several times, and endures the constant threat of prison sentences for his work and an official ban on making films. The denunciation of an oppressive regime is a virtue but not intrinsically artistic; Rasoulof creates a form – almost an anti-style – of brutal confrontation which gives an aesthetic identity to his righteous and dangerous candor.
Rasoulof’s 2020 film “There Is No Evil” exposed the horror of capital punishment in Iran as a moral crisis on a personal level. “A Man of Integrity” is a kleptocratic corruption drama, and it portrays Iran as a virtual gangster state in which impunity that starts at the top permeates the entire business, religious and government establishment. . This corruption damages personal relationships and distorts the worldview and inner identity of the country’s citizens. The palm fat and petty traffic of daily life in Iran are projected into the foreground, like an x-ray of society’s innards – a cold, dry, clinical way in which Rasoulof contains and expresses his rage.
This protagonist, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), is in his thirties. He had been expelled from college, then imprisoned for a minor, private comedic demonstration in the workplace; then he fled to a small town, where he now owns a fish farm. His wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), is the principal of a girls’ school, and they have a young son, Sahand, who is bright and brave. The farm is heavily mortgaged and the business is unstable. A friend at the local bank offers to broker a scheme in which Reza could bribe management to get his late penalties reduced. Reza wants nothing to do with such shady business, despite not being a dogmatic law-abiding, but simply following his conscience; he secretly produces homemade liquor, alcohol being illegal in Iran. When two so-called religious police officers enter and scour his home for alcohol, their presence takes on a paranoid tone in which the intrusive norms of law enforcement overlap with threats of surveillance, whistleblowing and harassment.
The city is dominated by a sprawling organization, eerily called only the Company, which wants to seize the lands of Reza. To do this, one of his agents shuts off the water, threatening Reza’s fish. When Reza turns the water back on, he is beaten by an agent named Abbas. When Reza retaliates, he is arrested on false charges of breaking Abbas’ arm – a police doctor is bribed to corroborate the injury. For Reza to make his case heard also requires a bribe; then, his water is poisoned and his fish are killed, but the insurance company dictates a kickback plan for Reza to file a claim. When he tries to lodge a complaint with the local administration, the latter refuses to contest the Company. A lawyer will not press charges on his behalf. Even Reza’s efforts to sell his land to the Company to pay off his debts crumble in the face of official corruption. During this time, the family suffers cruelly. Sahand faces bogus charges at school. Reza is threatened with violence by the Company’s henchmen. Hadis attempts to take matters into her own hands, with disastrous results, as she uncovers monstrous secrets. The couple’s relationship begins to unravel. Faced with a Kafkaesque nightmare of closed doors, dead ends and looming threats, Reza embarks on a ruthless plan that launches the film into the thrilling extremes of a thriller.
The plot of “A Man of Integrity” reflects elements of “Chinatown” and Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 short story”Michael Kohlhaas»: the former’s private and public manipulation of water resources for corrupt purposes, both the works’ view of the grotesque patriarchal crimes committed by the protected class of oppressors, and the crime itself as the only recourse in a hermetic system of egocentric government. Rasoulof is an empty-diagnosed realist whose furious vision hijacks the natural symbols of action, as in the existential emptiness of the big white envelopes slipped across tables as markers of power, or in the omnipresence of water itself. , as a source of life and source of life. as a means of sustenance, as a desperate aspiration to cleanse body and soul of filthy civic doings – or as a fetid swamp of death and decay. Even a hot spring in a cave, Reza’s almost metaphysical refuge for consolation and contemplation, must become a hiding place for concocting cold-blooded machinations. (Akhlaghirad’s performance catches Reza’s growing desperation as the actor’s gaze freezes and his dark eyes seem to sink into their sockets.)
In Rasoulof’s film, the mercenary corruption that plunders intimate life and social relations finds its core in religious authority, in which a pupil can be expelled from school or a corpse expelled from a cemetery for not being of good religion, and political power is concealed in an indisputable superior law. Rasoulof’s realism is radical in the literal sense: it exposes the roots of Iranian society and reveals its founding premise to be the pervasive source of injustice and corruption. “A Man of Integrity” is both a work of political challenge and artistic audacity. The film’s extreme contrast between the bland surfaces of everyday life and the infuriating pressures of ambient power looming beneath them transforms its intensely realistic imagery into calmly furious denunciations, journalistic revelations, and even wildly disorienting hallucinations. ♦