“A Man of Integrity,” Reviewed: A Dire Diagnosis for Iranian Society

In the middle of the Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s drama “A Man of Integrity” (completed in 2017, opening here this Friday), the title character meets a friend in Tehran, a woman whose work as a translator faces severe government restrictions. Her husband, a teacher and writer, is a political prisoner who’s at risk of a six-year sentence for his writings. The couple is oppressed in ways that evoke Rasoulof’s situation: since 2010, he has repeatedly been arrested, and endures the ongoing threat of prison sentences for his work and an official ban on making films. Denunciation of an oppressive regime is a virtue but not an intrinsically artistic one; Rasoulof creates a form—nearly an anti-style—of stark confrontation that 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 at the personal level. “A Man of Integrity” is a drama of kleptocratic corruption, and it depicts Iran as a virtual gangster state in which the impunity that starts at the top pervades the entire establishment of business, religion, and government. This corruption damages personal relationships and distorts the world view and the inner identities of the country’s citizens. The palm grease and petty trafficking of daily life in Iran is thrust into the foreground, as if in an X-ray of the innards of society—a cold, curt, and clinical manner in which Rasoulof contains and conveys his rage.

This protagonist, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), is about thirty. He had been expelled from college, then imprisoned for a comedically minor and private workplace protest; 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’s bright and spunky. The farm is heavily mortgaged, and the business is unsteady. A friend at the local bank suggests himself as the middleman for a scheme in which Reza could bribe the management to get his late-payment penalties reduced. Reza wants nothing to do with such sleazy business, although he is no dogmatic law-abider but simply follows his conscience; he secretly produces homemade liqueur, alcohol being illegal in Iran. When two officers of the so-called religious police enter and scour his home for alcohol, their presence strikes a paranoid tone in which the intrusive norms of law enforcement overlap with the menaces of surveillance, denunciation, and harassment.

The town is dominated by a tentacular organization, ominously called only the Company, that wants to take over Reza’s land. To do so, one of its agents shuts off the water, threatening Reza’s fish. When Reza turns the water back on, he’s beaten by an agent named Abbas. When Reza fights back, he’s arrested on false charges of breaking Abbas’s arm—a police doctor is bribed to corroborate the injury. For Reza to get his case heard requires a bribe, too; then, his water is poisoned and his fish are killed, but the insurance company dictates a scheme of bribes for Reza to file a claim. When he tries to file a complaint with the local government, it refuses to challenge the Company. A lawyer won’t file a suit on his behalf. Even Reza’s efforts to sell his land to the Company in order to pay his debts collapse in the face of official corruption. Meanwhile, the family suffers grievously. Sahand confronts false accusations at school. Reza is threatened with violence from 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 fray. Facing a Kafkaesque nightmare of closed doors, dead ends, and looming menace, Reza commits himself to a ruthless plan that launches the movie into the hectic extremes of a thriller.

The plot of “A Man of Integrity” reflects elements of “Chinatown” and Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella “Michael Kohlhaas”: the former’s private and public manipulation of water resources for corrupt ends, both works’ view of grotesque patriarchal crimes committed by the protected class of oppressors, and of crime itself as the sole recourse in a hermetic system of self-dealing rule. Rasoulof is a blankly diagnostic realist whose furious vision coaxes natural symbols from the action, as in the existential blankness of the fat white envelopes slid across tabletops as the markers of power, or in the ubiquity of water itself, as a source of life and a livelihood, as a desperate aspiration to cleanse body and soul of filthy civic dealings—or as a fetid swamp of death and decay. Even a hot spring in a cave, Reza’s nearly metaphysical hideaway for consolation and contemplation, must become a hideout for concocting cold-blooded machinations. (Akhlaghirad’s performance catches Reza’s deepening despair as the actor’s gaze freezes and his dark eyes seem to sink into their sockets.)

In Rasoulof’s film, the mercenary corruption that despoils intimate life and social relations finds its core in religious authority, in which a student can be expelled from school or a corpse expelled from a cemetery for not being of the right religion, and political rule cloaks itself in an indisputable higher law. Rasoulof’s realism is radical in the literal sense: he exposes the root of Iranian society and reveals its founding premise to be the all-pervasive source of injustice and corruption. “A Man of Integrity” is both a work of political defiance and of artistic audacity. The movie’s extreme contrast between the bland surfaces of daily life and the maddening pressures of ambient power looming beneath them turns its starkly realistic images into calmly furious denunciations, journalistic revelations, and even wildly disorienting hallucinations. ♦

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