Mohammad Rasoulof’s drama about endemic corruption in provincial Iran shows it’s an uphill climb for a righteous man.
After being sentenced to six years in prison for filming without a permit, one of which he served before being released on bail, filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof has ample experience with the Iranian judicial system. It is but one of the corrupt public institutions that are angrily denounced in A Man of Integrity (Lerd), a slow-starting moral and social drama that gathers momentum as it moves along. By the end, the hero, played with glowering rage by Reza Akhlaghirad, has gone through the trials of Job, all because he refuses to become part of a rotten system. Even if it’s far from a feel-good film, the situation is so compellingly presented and the conclusion so uncompromising that it could tap sensitive art house audiences, the kind who appreciate the moral quagmires of Asghar Farhadi. Its bow in Un Certain Regard in Cannes was warmly received. At home, one can easily imagine it will join the rest of the director’s banned films, like Manuscripts Don’t Burn and Iron Island.
It’s a pity, because the film would be most meaningful for domestic audiences who can unravel its political references. Although most of the story is perfectly understandable, non-Iranians are likely to stumble over the implications of the “Company” that seems to have taken over power in the area where the story takes place, and which the press notes link to the government and local authorities.
Set in rural northern Iran, the story takes some time before it ignites. Reza (Akhlaghirad) and his wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) are college graduates from Tehran now living with their young son on a goldfish farm. This curious business takes place in two large, shallow ponds fed with river water. When a handful of dead fish float to the surface, Reza instantly traces the problem to a small dam, where his powerful neighbor has maliciously cut off his water supply. As he rushes to open the sluice gate, old Abbas appears in a macho jeep, club in hand.
Their seminal fight takes place off screen, leaving the viewer in the dark as to what really happened. In the next scene, Reza is in jail expecting to be quickly released; he has done nothing serious. But Abbas has a fake medical certificate from a doctor saying he has a broken arm, and he is demanding damages that the farmer can ill afford to pay. Reza has already sold his wife’s car to make interest payments on a bank loan. Over and over again, he is told to apologize to the big bully next door, to bribe bank officials to lower his interest rate, to bribe the police and judge to get out of jail. But supreme stubbornness is part of his character: he’s a man of integrity.
His problems are just getting started. Abbas, the rich, nasty neighbor who is said to have killed his own three-year-old daughter and blamed it on someone else, is out for revenge. While he’s at it, he plans to buy Reza’s farm for a song. It could all be a Depression-era drama about the strong against the weak, and one feels the protags’ pain and misery keenly.
Even his family adds to the burden. Hadis, who is the principal in the local girls’ high school, tries to intimidate Abbas’s daughter into convincing her father to release Reza from the lawsuit. That backfires. Then their son gets into a fight with the son of the police chief, and so on. As in many Iranians dramas, one complication leads to another until the family seems to be sinking into quicksand. As everyone keeps telling Reza, there is only one way out: bribe everybody in sight.
This he refuses to do. Retreating to a secret cave where he bathes in pure, milky water (while ironically consuming a local moonshine he makes from fermented watermelons), he searches for a different solution to his problems. The final scenes, in which a wave of long-repressed violence breaks out, race by at thriller pace, as good and evil battle it out.
The very competent Bezaiee brings the role of Hadis into sharp focus; she is the only character who can out-stare her unblinking husband. An educated woman and a loving wife, she is at first unconditionally supportive of Reza, but her greater sense of practicality eventually makes her push him to compromise his values. Also, in her guise as school principal, she herself represents “the authorities” and when she receives an order to expel a non-Muslim girl from school, she unhesitatingly does so, despite the tearful pleas of the girl’s mother. Their religion is never specified, but the question is brought up again when non-Muslim mourners are forbidden to bury their dead in the town cemetery in a very dismaying scene.
Lest the viewer feel all this prejudice, injustice and corruption belongs only to the backward provinces, Reza finds an even sorrier situation in Tehran on a brief jaunt to the city. A lawyer counsels him to abandon his case for compensation from Abbas, and he finds his sister kicked out of the house and selling tea from her car after her teacher-husband was arrested on charges of propaganda against the regime.
The quiet tech work takes a back seat to the drama. Ashkan Ashkani’s unemphatic cinematography focuses on the natural world around the gritty farm, the rough country roads and the plain facades of public buildings, along with a few special locations like the magical cave where Reza goes to find peace. Stand-out visuals include a raucous bird attack on the pond and a blaze, but both are brief interludes in the larger drama. Peyman Yazdanian’s well-heeled score also sticks to the background.