The means by which an authoritarian regime succeeds in silencing independent voices is the subject of “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” the slow-burning, clandestinely made fifth fiction feature by Iranian helmer-writer Mohammad Rasoulof. A brave, challenging picture that makes the viewer complicit in the action, it is also perhaps the first film since the declaration of the Islamic Republic to confront so directly the brutality of the feared security apparatus. Fest play is a given, with the possibility of niche arthouse exposure in some territories.
While Iranians and Iranophiles will see a secondary subtext in the persons and events depicted, the central situation, based on real incidents, could be set in any country where people (particularly artists) are unable to speak with unfettered voices.
“Manuscripts” has more in common with Rasoulof’s previous feature, the Cannes-preemed “Goodbye,” than with his sharp-edged allegories “Iron Island” and “White Meadows.” Like “Goodbye,” it unfolds in the here and now of a cold, unsmiling Tehran where despair and anxiety reign. Narrative information is meted out in bits and pieces, keeping viewers off-balance and forcing them to pay close attention.
The film opens like a thriller, with working-class man Khosrow running from a pursuer and jumping, in the nick of time, into a car driven by his colleague Morteza. It’s only after we follow Khosrow home and feel sympathy for his sick child and financial problems that we discover that he and Morteza are the torture and assassination arms of the state.
Along with their silken-voiced boss, Khosrow and Morteza are searching for copies of a banned manuscript that describes a 1995 incident in which 21 poets on a bus bound for a conference in Armenia were slated for elimination. The bus driver, whom we later learn was Khosrow, was ordered to jump out of the bus just before sending the vehicle into a gorge. Luckily, fate forestalled the fatalities, but the writers were warned never to speak of the incident.
Rasoulof gives the murderers a great deal of screen time as he shifts from the persecutor-victim relationships to a broader, universal comment about the banality of evil. This is epitomized most chillingly in a scene in which Khosrow kills a disabled professor with a lethal suppository and, while waiting for it to take effect, helps himself to the contents of the professor’s refrigerator.
The violence is, for the most part, understated, depicted as an everyday part of Khosrow and Morteza’s jobs. Yet even as these men go about their diabolical deeds, Rasoulof provides a sliver of hope by showing that there is always a witness, both within the film itself and by extension, via the audience.
No warm tones intrude on the well-executed lensing, much of which is done in tightly framed closeups. The claustrophobic visuals, as well as the sophisticated and increasingly ominous sound design, reinforce a “no exit” feel. Those in the know say all exteriors were shot in Iran, while the interior scenes were filmed in Germany.
Rasoulof and fellow helmer and frequent collaborator Jafar Panahi were arrested in the summer of 2009, and later convicted of filming without permission. Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison, but the sentence has yet to be executed. For the past several years, he has been living between Tehran and Hamburg, Germany. Because of Iranian censorship, and in order to maintain the safety of his crew and cast, their names were redacted from the credits.
At the world premiere screening caught at Cannes, Rasoulof appeared onstage with his unnamed thesps, reportedly expat Iranians living in Europe.