Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof and his films have been under siege for some time. His 2009 film The White Meadows angered the Iranian government to the point where it had him arrested the following year for “filming without a permit.” He received a six-year prison sentence, later reduced to one year, and a twenty-year ban from filmmaking, which he went on to violate in 2011. The press kit for his latest film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, says “right now he is out on bail and is waiting for the sentence to be executed.” Rasoulof had been able to travel and talk to the press since his arrest (see also Jonathan Marlow’s interview with the director, “The Art of Filmmaking: Mohammad Rasoulof,” a conversation that took place at the Telluride Film Festival, 2013), though last fall, his passport was revoked by the Iranian government.
After seeing Manuscripts Don’t Burn, one worries for its maker: It’s the kind of political film whose narrative a filmmaker could easily wind up living out if he sticks around. Rasoulof is the only person whose name appears in the credits of Manuscripts Don’t Burn. The entire cast and the rest of the crew are anonymous.
Hitmen Khosrow and Morteza plan a new mission: faking someone’s death to look like a suicide. It’s a typical day’s work for them, but Khosrow neurotically checks his ATM to see if he’s gotten paid yet, as he has a sick child to take care of. Their target is Kasra, an ailing author who’s written his memoirs. They describe an incident in which the Iranian government tried to kill twenty-one writers on a trip to Armenia by staging a bus accident. He begs a friend to help him publish the memoir, but for obvious reasons, it’s impossible to do so legally in Iran.
The White Meadows used magic realism to make a relatively gentle criticism of the Iranian government’s treatment of artists: it depicted them tormenting a painter for his surreal choice of colors and departure from strict naturalism. Allegorical or not, the government got the message. There’s nothing indirect about the social commentary in Manuscripts Don’t Burn. It alludes to the “chain murders” of eighty intellectuals and activists critical of the Islamic regime between 1988 and 1998, fictionalizing them into a single incident.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn looks surprisingly elegant for a film obviously shot under haphazard conditions. Many exteriors seem to have been filmed at dawn, perhaps as a way of eluding notice. This gives the cinematography an appealingly blue, snowy tinge. One assumes it was shot with a small, possibly hidden camera. In a crowd scene near the end of the film, no one notices the camera’s presence, but Rasoulof couldn’t possibly have hired professional extras. This lends the film a raw quality: when the actors cross the street, they dodge real traffic. Even the interiors tend to be rather dim.
The duo of hitmen in Manuscripts Don’t Burn are a bit familiar. Rasoulof takes care to humanize them, although he never strays over the edge into making them appealing or cool. Khosrow’s worries keep him from coming off as soulless. He may be a killer, but he cares about his son—and, just as importantly, having enough money to pay for hospital care. Subtly, the film suggests that if he had the opportunity to find a better-paying job, he’d take it. He has a conscience as well, while his partner Morteza doesn’t seem to care about ethics—their work is justified under sharia law, he says. The film’s world is almost entirely masculine; women barely appear here.
Rasoulof’s real anger is reserved for upper-middle-class intellectuals who’ve sold out to the government. It’s so directly targeted that I’m sure he has someone specific in mind. With his designer suits and glasses and neatly trimmed beard, a newspaper editor seems like a harmless yuppie at first, but he hasn’t left behind his past as a government interrogator. Manuscripts Don’t Burn lays out a system of surveillance and control that makes 1984 look optimistic. When Kasra accuses a friend of being a typically pessimistic intellectual, he has no idea how justified that pessimism turns out to be.
Rasoulof’s attempts to show the human side of his hitmen sometimes overreach; the constant references to money and ill health feel like forced attempts at pointing out the vulnerability his characters all share. That said, there’s something bracing about the anger of Manuscripts Don’t Burn. The gentle critiques of Iranian society in films like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence or Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten have been cast aside for something as potent and fiery as the vodka Kasra drinks.