Reza Akhlaghirad wears a sullen scowl — first scene to last — in Mohammad Rasoulof’s bitter, biting indictment of life in corrupt, theocratic Iran, “A Man of Integrity.”
His character, Reza, is tested again and again, a surly and stubborn Muslim Job whose privacy, livelihood, property and civil rights are trampled on by bullying local power brokers and an indifferent bureaucracy that won’t do anything about it without the proper bribes.
It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare set in a suburban town where justice is bought and paid for and fighting the status quo is quixotic, and dangerous.
Reza raises goldfish. He’s mortgaged to the max, but he won’t pay the suggested bribes to assorted bank officials to avoid late fees. He’d rather sell the family car to pay whart he ownes, and let wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) take the truck to the girl’s school, where she is head teacher. “Proud” and “stubborn” go hand in hand with “integrity” as far as Reza is concerned. He’s setting an example for his young son.
But to raise and sell goldfish, he needs access to water. “The Company” isn’t intent on letting him have it, and a parade of local officials have been bought off to ensure that his protests won’t get anywhere.
An off-camera tangle with Abbas, the local enforcer of Company edicts lands them both in jail. But Reza’s grossly unequal treatment should be his last, best warning.
“Sell your land and leave,” his brother-in-law (Misagh Zare) urges. Hadis makes a short trip from “Do what you think is right” to figuring out bribes and making threats to the child of Abbas at school to realizing the futility of it all, as human-engineered calamities befall them.
“We are ruined,” she laments, in Persian with English subtitles.
There’s very little shouting in this marriage. Most debates are settled in stare-downs. But whatever the couple decides to do, every avenue of escape seems cut off and every escalation leads to deadly overreactions.
Movies and other works of art should, ideally, be considered on the merits of what’s in front of you, not the back-story of the production or trials of the filmmaker. That’s never the case, and when it comes to writer-director Rasoulof, knowing that his movies (“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”) are generally banned in Iran and that he was imprisoned for filming without permission, informs what we see on the screen.
The first scene here has Reza furtively making watermelon liquor right up to the moment the Sharia Law enforcers show up on a motorbike. Two impertinent punks search his house, take his hunting shotgun and tell him to renew the license and retrieve it “at the mosque.”
Every legitimate avenue of protest is a futile quest for “justice” that has disappeared. It’s chilling to watch, even more so when you consider the open corruption that’s moved into the spotlight, unpunished in America thanks to a bought-and-paid-for court system and utterly compromised Supreme Court.
Rasoulof doesn’t take into account the viewer’s growing frustration as we wait for intervention, retribution or revenge. In keeping many of the steps Reza finds himself forced to take off-camera, the film’s third act struggles to coherently make its points or provide logical satisfaction in its resolution.
This is maddening, and the people who have resigned themselves to it — “oppressors” and “the oppressed” — just amplify the feeling of impotence we start to share with the characters.
Through it all, Akhlaghirad makes a fine, seething muse for Rasoulof, a character who never quite gave up his student protestor past now speaking for a filmmaker who plainly never outgrew his, either.
Rating: PG-13, implied violence, drug content
Cast: Reza Akhlaghirad, Soudabeh Beizaee, Nasim Adabi, Misagh Zare, Zeinab Shabani, Zhila Shahi
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof. A Big World release.
Running time: 1:56