Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)

Before I watched this film, a question occurred to me, based solely on the synopsis and little background I knew. Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity (2017) is about a former professor named Reza, facing the challenges of living a life free of bribes and corruption despite moving to a village in Northern Iran and farming goldfish. This film, ironically, is banned in Iran.

The question I had was, can this film serve as a commentary on the challenges of being a filmmaker in Iran? Perhaps corruption is a stand-in for a more common obstacle for filmmakers: censorship. Rasoulof himself was victim to this when he was arrested on the set of a previous film in 2010, alongside fellow Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi (Taxi Tehran). It therefore seemed plausible that this film about a man struggling to preserve his moral compass in the face of an unjust system, could be a meta-narrative commentary on the perils of making a film in/about Iran.

After watching the film, the likely answer to my question is “no”. However in its depiction of corruption as a painfully endless whirlwind of paperwork, money, and false accusations, this film points to a vacuum in society maybe only the filmmaker, the artist, the writer can fill.

“In this country, you are either the oppressor or the oppressed”. This line is said by Reza’s friend from university, reminding him of something he used to say. “But you found a third option, you moved to the village”, she concludes. It may be easy to think escaping the city is the solution, but Rasoulof makes it clear that this is may not be the case. An ominous developer, known only as The Company, sets its eyes on Reza’s land. The main conflict arises when The Company cuts off Reza’s water supply and his goldfish begin to die. As Reza traces the pipes back to the sluice, he gets into a violent altercation with the local mafia boss, Abbas, who has some kind of stake in The Company.

Abbas has Reza arrested, but instead of bowing down to the system and paying bribes, Reza attempts to serve his time the right way. Thereafter, around every corner on the virtuous path lays a crude mousetrap specifically designed to make Reza’s integrity his sole weakness.

However, the strength of this film is in its depiction of corruption as not simply a systemic flaw, but as a ubiquitous ideology. Reza’s wife, Hadis, sources the funds to pay the bribes that will get her husband out of jail. Nevertheless, she does not simply subject to the corruption, but actively participates in it. Hadis is a head teacher at an all girls school, where Abbas’ daughter also studies. To stop Abbas from putting increasing pressure on Reza, Hadis threatens Abbas’ daughter’s enrollment, all while hypocritically preaching, “nobody should abuse their power”. On the contrary, in this society, abusing power is the only way to get things done. 

Throughout the film it seems as though Hadis never truly understands why integrity is so important to her husband, often calling Reza selfish for putting his family’s safety at stake only for the sake of his morality. By constructing Hadis as an antithesis to Reza, Rasoulof keeps his audience from getting carried away with the idealism. Showing a wife and a young son who equally suffer the ramifications of Reza’s actions, forces the audience to view Reza’s resolve from a cautious distance. The film ends with Reza succumbing to the pressure and going from being one of the oppressed to joining the ranks of the oppressors. 

Reza may not have found the third option in the end, but I believe Rasoulof did. Despite the oppression Rasoulof and many of his colleagues continue to endure in their journey to make films about their country, their depictions of both the pain and the beauty of life in Iran still reach audiences far and wide. Censorship and jail time fail to keep the films away from viewers, and in this way, the filmmaker can never be oppressed. Hence, perhaps the only thing of complete integrity one can do is to stay committed to one’s art.

Review by Tanvi Rajvanshi

A Man of Integrity is part of Singular Screens, the film programme under the 2018 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Singular Screens showcases a line-up of 13 new films that seeks to respond to the general sentiment of the Festival programming, with ideas revolving around the notion of resistance and the experience of the individual. Curated by Asian Film Archive, SIFA 2018 invites film and arts lovers to embark on cinematic adventures that celebrate independent voices across the world and power of the individual.

Dates: 28 April and 3 May
Venue: Screening Room, Festival House
Tickets: $9
To books tickets, click here.
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