A justice drama shot with a high focus on realism and naturalist performances, Ballad of a White Cow favorably brings to mind the work of the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi. Telling the story of widow Mina (Maryan Moghaddam) who campaigns for justice against her wrongfully executed husband, it a powerful invective against the death penalty that avoids outright didacticism in favor of a moving yet smart morality play.
It makes a neat follow up to last Berlinale’s There is No Evil, which also explored the deleterious effects of the death penalty, albeit in more flamboyant fashion. Directors Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghadam only allow for one non-realist flourish, a shot of the eponymous cow in the midst of a prison yard, men sentenced to death on the left side, fully-covered women on the right. Striking in its composition, it brings into view the vast injustices happening in a country where the death penalty is fairly common.
A year after her husband’s execution, Mina finds out that he wasn’t responsible for the murder. Yet, even though a mistake was made, stony-faced officials remain unrepentant about the mistake, claiming that it must be “Allah’s will.” The film is suggesting, although never outrightly stating, that a state-based upon scripture allows little room for nuance, doing the opposite of Allah’s will in the process.
This makes things particularly difficult for women. Adding insult to injury, her husband’s family still wants to take her daughter Bita (Avin Purraoufi) away, claiming that she is unfit to be a mother. The double-standards and difficulties for women in Iranian society are laid out in further detail when she is kicked out of her apartment for allowing an unrelated friend of her husband, Reza (Alireza Sanifar), to enter her home. When she looks for a new apartment, she is told by a rental agent that single women are not permitted to have their own homes. With no one else to turn to, she relies on the melancholic Reza for help, unaware that he harbours a dark secret of his own…
Allowing the acting and the screenplay to do most of the heavy lifting, using simple compositions and plain mise-en-scène as a kind of iceberg effect, suggesting vast wellsprings of emotion bubbling under the surface. For example, there is the suggestion that Reza and Mina are sleeping together, although you will never see something as explicit as this in Iranian cinema. Its limitations are often its strengths, allowing the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the gaps.
The potential for cinema to resist the authoritarian state has long-persisted in Iran, despite many directors remaining under house arrest. And film plays a strong role throughout, her child named after the classic pre-revolutionary movie Bita, a relic from a time before the Islamic state when women didn’t have to cover their hair and alcohol was legal. The difficulties for women in the patriarchal country remain abundantly clear: Ballad of a White Cow expertly highlights these issues in a clever, stirring, understated fashion.
Ballad of a White Cow plays in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival, running from 1st to 5th March.