Mohammad Rasoulof’s social realist thriller from 2017 finds its Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque on March 18.
Header Image: Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), wearing muted colors and a vaguely puzzled expression, crouches down to inspect a dead goldfish from his pond in the Iranian wilderness.
A stark, slow-burning portrait of injustice, corruption, and moral bankruptcy in contemporary Iranian society, A Man Of Integrity (2017) represents a bold act of resistance to an authoritarian government. Prohibited from making films in Iran and working with a suspended prison sentence hanging over his head, director Mohammad Rasoulof filmed A Man Of Integrity clandestinely in northern Iran. His film examines the darker side of life under a repressive regime, while suggesting that principles are a luxury few Iranians can realistically afford. While Rasoulof’s film still cannot be seen in his home country, local lovers of Iranian cinema can catch the Madison premiere of A Man of Integrity at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Friday, March 18, at 7 p.m.
Rasoulof’s story centers on Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), an upright goldfish farmer struggling to carve out a simple existence with his wife and young son in a remote rural village. Unfortunately for him, a shadowy private outfit known only as “The Company” with close ties to the government and police wants his land and will stop at nothing to acquire it. Reza’s reality soon becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare as he finds himself subjected to the cruel machinations and subterfuges of this powerful corporate network.
Reza’s ordeal truly begins when The Company cuts off his water supply, thus jeopardizing his piscine livelihood. As he attempts to reopen the sluice gate, The Company’s hired thug Abbas (Misagh Zare Zeinab) suddenly attacks him, but Reza is the one who ends up in jail. The incident occurs off-screen, keeping viewers in the dark as to what really happened. Abbas obtains a false medical certificate for a broken arm and Reza is ordered to pay damages.
Desperately trying to fight a legal battle against The Company, Reza encounters one bureaucratic dead-end after another. In the face of mounting legal troubles, blatant abuses of power, vandalism, threats, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment, Reza stubbornly refuses to practice bribery and yield to the pervasive corruption that has become accepted as the way to do business. He ultimately learns that preserving the soundness of his moral character might prove too costly as his family’s life starts to collapse.
Rasoulof’s complex, multilayered, and quietly devastating social realist drama recalls the films of Michael Haneke as much as Alfred Hitchcock while it slowly ratchets up the tension and reveals the corrosive effect of corruption on society. Reza’s quest for justice seems increasingly absurd and hopeless as everyone around him eventually compromises their values in order to survive.
The elliptical narrative gradually reveals details about Reza’s situation and backstory, using poignant visual metaphors to suggest his state of mind. For example, his wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) walks away from a pan of simmering liquid on the stove, and it immediately boils over. Multiple scenes show Reza in the shower frantically scrubbing his body, as though to cleanse himself of the rampant dishonesty that threatens to contaminate his soul. With minimal sound design and the absence of a background score, A Man Of Integrity largely relies on the muted, naturalistic performances of its lead actors to convey fleeting impressions of reality and mood.
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani’s static camerawork and wintry color palette accentuate the bleak, oppressive environment in which the characters exist. Rasoulof punctuates the movie’s gritty realism with brief interludes that border on the surreal, such as a startling, raucous avian attack on Reza’s fish pond evocative of The Birds (1963). Reza also periodically retreats to a secret, mysteriously enchanting cave to ponder his problems and bathe in opalescent water as he imbibes an alcoholic liquor illicitly distilled from fermented watermelons. The more Reza tries to resist The Company’s poisonous influence, the more his difficulties seem to multiply.
In its final act, A Man Of Integrity adopts the pace of a thriller as the latent violence lurking in the depths of the story rises to the surface. Rasoulof gives viewers a cold-blooded punch to the gut and Reza, at last, grasps a valuable lesson: “In this country, you are oppressed or you are the oppressor.”