Hangman, family man: Berlinale film probes the limits of free will

BERLIN (Reuters) - Heshmat is a loving father and supportive husband who delights local children by rescuing a trapped cat - but also the man who operates the trapdoor through which a row of the condemned plunge from the scaffold to their deaths.

Slideshow ( 11 images )

And even if his eyes sometimes betray a haunted look, his compromise with Iran’s regime makes him the most contented of the four lead characters in Mahammad Rasoulof’s “There Is No Evil”, premiering on Friday at the Berlin Film Festival.

The film, shot in secret because the dissident director is banned from making movies in his home country, explores the ethical dilemmas that capital punishment pushes onto men, women and their children, stirring the viewer to reflect on the limits of free will - and not just in authoritarian societies.

“I have often asked what it is to say ‘no’ to an authoritarian regime,” Rasoulof said in a video interview published on the festival’s website.

His passport has been confiscated, and he is banned from leaving the country.

Three other protagonists, each the star of a different moral fable, all make different choices when faced with the order to kill, some braver than others, but each choice imposes costs on them and their loved ones.

Rasoulof’s daughter Baran plays a young woman who grew up in Germany on her first visit to see relatives in Iran, whom she exasperates with her guileless belief that wanting something makes it possible.

Born in Iran, Rasoulof was charged with making propaganda after returning from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where his “A Man of Integrity” won a prize.

The scene-setting betrays the secrecy involved in filming: events unfold either in enclosed, dark spaces far from prying eyes, or in lush, remote landscapes.

Rasoulof said each of the moral dilemmas was drawn from experience: in the case of Heshmat, played by Ehsan Mirhosseini, he had seen his former prison interrogator on the street and realized how ordinary he was - “merely a person who had not questioned his own actions.”

Producer Kaveh Farnam said the film’s lessons went beyond Iran.

“It’s about questioning things in your life that you don’t want to do,” he said. “For the growing number of people who live in dictatorial countries it’s much harder to make such a choice: but nonetheless every day, every minute we must make choices, whether we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

The crew had themselves made such choices, he told Reuters.

“I am too much worried for the young people who really did this film,” he said. “The world should know the courage of these people.”

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; editing by John Stonestreet