EIFF 2021: Ballad of a White Cow
Maryam Moghaddam stars in and co-directs this existentially rich drama concerned with Iran’s capital penal system and centred on a woman whose husband is wrongly executed
Under traditional sharia law, there is a doctrine named the qisas that is still practised in parts of the Islamic world. Based in retaliatory justice, it places the right to punish in the hands of the victim of a violent crime, or their family. They can demand financial or bodily retribution – an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, a life for a life. Or, they can grant a pardon. In Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghadam’s Ballad of a White Cow, a woman (played by Moghadam) is forced to contend with the full force of the qisas still provided for under Iranian law after her husband is wrongfully convicted of murder and executed on the request of a grieved widow.
This is complex religious and political ground, but Ballad of a White Cow is a distinctly psychological rather than theological project, interested less in heightened moral debates over the validity of the qisas than in unpacking a social contract founded on the right to revenge. The direction is sparse yet suffocating, resting with an almost claustrophobic focus on Moghadem’s meticulously taut Mina as she is left to cope not only with her grief at her husband’s death but the economic and social instability that comes with being a widowed single mother.
Yet for all its social realist roots, Ballad of a White Cow is not a stylistically austere film. Borrowing from the planimetric visual language of filmmakers such as Elia Suleiman, characters sit squarely within the centre of the frame, occupying the world with a delicate symmetry that the relentless violence of society constantly threatens to upend.
Ballad of a White Cow is notably the second film in two years to engage with Iran’s capital penal system. The first, Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival while also seeing the director arrested and imprisoned by the Iranian government for his fierce execration of the Islamic Republic's abhorrent use of the death penalty.
Sanaeeha and Moghadam’s focus on the qisas, and their determination to look inwards towards human capacity for cruelty rather than outwards towards the power of the state renders Ballad of a White Cow an existentially rich, if politically timid, film. It's a granular social drama that grapples with the inherent contradiction of brutality and grace that characterises everyday life under the regime.