Mohammad Rasoulof’s newest film is one of the most provocative statements to come out of Iranian cinema in the last decade, which is saying something. Iranian cinema has a sordid history, something Rasoulof knows all too well—he was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison (later reduced to 1 year) for filming without a permit. Yet despite his legal limbo, Manuscripts Don’t Burn aims straight for the Iranian government with a strong indictment of the government’s censorship and systematic extermination of dissent.
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Writers: Mohammad Rasoulof
Premiere: May 24, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Rasoulof has kept the cast and crew (except for himself) anonymous, to protect them from potential repercussions. While understandable, this is a bit of a shame, as the nuanced performance of viciousness from the film’s leads is astounding. Khosrow and Morteza are a couple of thugs hired to eliminate some intellectual dissidents and make it look like a suicide. Morteza is a traditional Hollywood goon, a heavyset henchman ready to pull a knife at a moment’s notice, but Khosrow is something different. While he is certainly complicit in the acts of violence that take place, his main preoccupation is with his bank account—he continually begs to stop at a bank so he can check his balance—to ensure that his ailing child can get the surgery he needs. And more worrisome than his bank account is his conscience—his wife calls and berates him, telling him that their child’s sickness is God punishing them for the wickedness he does to make money. His child’s illness pushes him to work, for the money to pay for treatment, but also pushes him to stop as he feels his work is partially responsible for that illness, leaving him in a complex predicament as the two henchmen circle their prey.
Their victims are two old men, one of whom is wheelchair-bound. They are left-wing intellectual authors who have written things critical of the Iranian government. One has written a manuscript for his memoir, and in it are details of a government attempt to kill a busload of writers by driving their bus off a cliff—based on a real event that took place in 1995. Despite their infirmity and sensitivity—they are authors, not freedom fighters—they demonstrate tremendous courage, as they know the forces they are up against. In fact, they know them personally. The draconian employer of Khosrow and Morteza is a clean-cut, officious autocrat, but in a former life he was a lefty intellectual and a friend of the two old men. Now swept up by the administration he once opposed, he is hunting down former friends and compatriots for their refusal to conform.
As the film begins, it interweaves between the specifics of this thriller setup and the mundanities of these peoples lives. Our two thugs take phone calls and run errands while our intellectuals discuss the risk they take and endure the indemnity of old age—changing diapers and taking medication. The film builds slowly and brutally as the two begin to interact. Scenes of torture and cruelty are common and the callousness of the autocratic boss man is a stomach-turning sight to behold.
Rasoulof doesn’t pull punches, and that’s part of the project of this film, based as it is on real occurrences. Like Roberto Bolaños 2666 (a book that spends hundreds of pages describing imagined grisly murders to correspond to the mysterious and never-solved murders of thousands of women in Ciudad Juárez) Rasoulof’s film forces viewers to face up to the savagery of history. While his earlier films have been poetic and evocative, this is neither; a hardcore realist thriller, haunting and upsetting in its visceral images of torture. It has all the grit and drama you would expect from a Liam Neeson action thriller, but the pace is slower and more meditative. Rather than making the violence easier to stomach, it simply prolongs and extends the agony, making it all the more real. Seeing a kidnapper make himself a sandwich after breaking in and tying up his victim does nothing to lessen the distress, it just adds an eerie veneer of authenticity that reminds us that this kind of thing really did (and, the film seems to suggest, does) happen.
As oppressive as the current regime may be, it is an incredible achievement that films like Manuscripts Don’t Burn can be made and distributed. Like Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011), which documented Panahi’s house arrest in which he was prohibited from making films, this film’s release seems miraculous. Panahi’s film was smuggled into Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake, but how Rasoulof’s film escaped Iran remains a mystery. Regardless, this film is not one to miss during it’s limited two-night run in the Twin Cities.