Manuscripts Don't Burn
Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof
Khosrow and Morteza set out on a mission to kill someone. The assassination ought to be arranged as a suicide. At the last minute however, they are obliged to change their initial plans…
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★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
Five years on from the jail sentence and 20 year directorial ban imposed on Mohammad Rasoulof by the Iranian government following the release of The White Meadows, the director continues to stand firm in defiance. His latest film sends a direct message back to the leaders of the country, that freedom of speech cannot and will not forever be curtailed. The risks for all involved are huge and the fact it has been made and released at all is a triumph within itself.
Such a sentence may sound dramatic because us folks in the West can usually detach ourselves once the credits roll, this is just a film after all right? Not often do we read such a sobering message immediately after a film has closed informing us that the all crew and cast members will not be mentioned in an attempt to protect their identity. Releases like these are moments where film fiction can transcend into a space where it truly matters, a place where it reflects a present reality, maybe even affect something other than a studios bank balance.
Rasoulof meshes together three sections of Iranian society, all with a vested interest in the covert activities of the creative underground. The day starts early with two henchmen leaving their latest mission en-route back home. We cut to a writer discussing with a friend his determination to print his newest piece in an attempt to provoke the minds of the country. The editor of the states leading newspaper can also be seen crossing through articles, his position in the story later far more pivotal as the threads of each party converge onto each other.
Time is taken to humanise the hitmen so they become more than just hired muscle carrying out orders. One of them has child in need of an operation, his patience running thin the longer he waits for his payment from the secret police to arrive. An ordinary guy who needs to support his family, the nature of jobs he is asked to perform forcing him to tussle with his conscience. At times Rasoulof tries too hard to find an empathetic route into these characters although the slow, deliberate steps elsewhere balance these moments out. The truth is that everyone has compromised themselves to be in their current position, no matter how vehemently they stand behind their morality.
Understandably a lot of the filming appears to have taken place under the cloak of dusk or dawn, presumably to avoid detection by the authorities. Rather than detract from the tone it actually adds to the clandestine air in a world where secret conversations, recordings, stakeouts and outright terrorisation is a daily occurrence. There are no punches pulled when it comes to interrogation scenes that remain unfussy and to the point, horribly close to the bone.
Any idea of an allegorical attack on the government in Iran has been blown out of the water by this vivid, in your (their) face confrontation. It reveals what many outside of the country believe to be true from a director who appears to be ready to lay it all on the line in return for this kind of expose. Not many will choose to pick up the film but those that do will be exposed to rare, fearless filmmaking.
★★★★ review by MrTaylor on Letterboxd
Biggest challenge: not thinking of The White Meadows when watching or assessing his other films. Not a problem, despite some periods of drag as the bleak style continues. Times like the tunnel scene suggests this is a dark and winding path with little light shed unless Rasoulof intends it...much like the core message. The trash bag scene offers a different ability to shake his audience and he is effective at this as well. Above all, the voice aims to drown out the government oppression and Rasoulof is being heard loud and clear.
★★★★ review by Juan Bacaro on Letterboxd
Uno de los thrillers más implacables, dramáticos y valientes que haya visto en los últimos años.
Cuando se estrenó en Cannes 2013 se comentó que esta cinta y "Heli" (de Amat Escalante) contenían las escenas más perturbadoras de todo el festival. Me refiero puntualmente a escenas de tortura.
Mohammad Rasoulof se suma a Jafar Panahi como los dos realizadores sometidos a procedimiento judicial en Irán (y que han tenido prohibición de filmar). La osadía de ambos para proyectos de este tipo es algo admirable; pero "Manuscripts don’t burn" me ha dejado pasmado con su perversión, arrojo y franqueza. Queda uno atrapado entre la desesperanza y la admiración.
Además, hay trabajo no lineal en el guión (muy inteligente) y mucha vida a la elipsis. Es de esas películas en las cuales cada palabra de los personajes está excesivamente bien medida.
Le juega en contra que hay que ser espectador atento en extremo. Por momentos confunde.
★★★★ review by sailordanae on Letterboxd
This was a powerful, moving, disturbing film. If some of the camerawork is questionable, the intense performance from out lead actor, the compelling script, and the utter courage it took to make this film outweigh any less-than-polished technical issues.
Yes, this is a film about Iran in the mid-90's. It is a striking criticism of the Iranian government and politics, of the silencing of intellectuals and discourse. It speaks of fear and of courage, of desperation and resignation. It's about what a government will do to control their populace. How far it will go.
If you think this is only about Iran, you are incredibly naive.
★★★½ review by Jussi Hulkkonen on Letterboxd
An air of exhaustion, spiritual and psychical, hovers over Rasoulof's stark political thriller, the gloomy, dispiriting pall of the grey winter skies and uniformly dank, dilapidated surroundings—cars zip past on anonymous urban streets, long drives through rural areas emphasize the monotonous emptiness that abounds in desolate landscapes seemingly completely depopulated—reflecting the desperate state the subjects of Iran's oppressive regime find themselves under, haunted by surveillance, persecuted for their thoughts, and condemned to lives of stagnation and paranoia. Against this grim setting, Rasoulof's take-no-prisoners condemnation of the dehumanizing methods employed by the government and its censors carries a grave weight, the awareness of the risks taken by every single member of the production lending a stark gravity to the stripped down thriller's methodical progression as it lays out its grim world, one of brutal consequences and staggering moral compromises which leaves no one unscathed.
Eschewing allegory, poeticism, or concerns for aesthetic beauty, Rasoulof instead opts for a fine tuned directness, the film's determined pace and pared-down plot supported by the density of Rasoulof's portrait, the split narrative focus evincing a scope which encompasses both sides of the bitter battle, documenting the institutionalized efficiency of the state's censorship operations with in a damning indictment which, spares a stirring sympathy for those caught in the wheels of this machine—the compassion for the intellectuals mirrored by the despairing sadness of his portrait of the father pressed into service as an assassin.
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