The melodrama “The Ballad of the White Cow” only appears to be critical of the death penalty in Iran.
Tehran – Measured by its population, Iran is the country with the highest number of executions. Many of these are public, imposed not only for murder and drug offences, but also for blasphemy, so-called political offences, adultery or homosexuality. Killings by the state are literally the order of the day, so it’s not surprising that Iranian cinema also devotes time and again to this all too commonplace subject. The stance that filmmakers take on this is often also an indicator of how they position themselves in relation to a regime that also threatens the existence of artists.
After the politically persecuted auteur filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020 with his masterpiece “Yes, there is no such thing as evil”, the topic was again present in the following year. The Berlinale has no qualms about inviting works from dictatorships that are friendly to the regime; “The Ballad of the White Cow” is an example of this. And while other officially exported festival films are kept under lock and key at home, the melodrama by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam was already part of last year’s line-up at Tehran’s Fajr Festival. The death penalty only appears as a problem when it hits an innocent person.
“Blood money” as compensation
In fact, the life of the protagonist, played by Moghaddam herself, only really gets out of hand when she learns of the innocence of her executed husband. In the year after her death, she settled into life as best she could with her deaf daughter. The court offers her financial compensation, and the father-in-law is very keen to claim this “blood money”. You yourself, on the other hand, are concerned with an official rehabilitation. The story takes a mysterious turn when an alleged friend of the dead man also wants to help her. In fact, the supposedly good spirit is the guilt-ridden judge Reza (Alirez Sanifar), who helped hand down the death sentence.
Perhaps at first this story might be mistaken for a missing episode from Rasoulof’s artful anthology of moral entanglements, but no one here takes a critical stance on the death penalty itself. It’s just the irreversible consequences of a misjudgment that plunge several protagonists into emotional distress. But shouldn’t a loving wife have mourned her husband just as much when he was guilty of being executed? Shouldn’t a seasoned judge come to terms with the reality of misjudgments? Of course, the filmmakers’ stance on inhumane legal practice is not the only yardstick for a sophisticated film drama.
Ballad of the White Cow.
Iran 2020. Directed by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam. 105 mins
Ballad of the White Cow: Exhibits well-known qualities of Iranian film
In fact, the qualities that have made Iranian family and social dramas a coveted brand product at international festivals are not missing here either: There are excellent dialogues, outstanding actors, psychologically highly developed characters and a virtuoso playing out of plot twists, wrong tracks and a hopefully surprising one second look at what is happening. Asghar Farhadi, also a highly esteemed director in his own country, is a master of this narrative culture; but these clearly constructed characters are far removed from his powers of observation.
The artistic side is more exciting than all the dilemmas that this film tells about. Because precisely when the multi-perspective narration lacks the last critical perspective, the one that the system itself also questions, even a sparkling, polished prism suddenly appears blunt. (Daniel Kothenschulte)