The very first shot of A Man of Integrity is a close up of a syringe going into a rounded body. We can almost tell it isn't a human body but we are left to wonder, especially since the person injecting it applies a band-aid at the end of the procedure.
This, it turns out, it is a watermelon, being injected with alcohol, which is how Reza, the leading man in the film, makes his favourite drink. It is a process, -- this fermentation along with the filtration and the drinking of the rosey liquid -- that comes up again and again, in some way or another throughout Mohammad Rasoulof's stunning, quiet and disquieting film. The watermelon's red flesh and the short moments of relaxation the resulting drink allow the harassed, constantly antagonized protagonist are a welcomed relief for the audience as well, as we begin to internalize the struggles of Reza, his wife Hadis and even their young boy Sahand.
Rasoulof's genius lies in being able to make films, in his native Iran, even though none of them to date have been watched by his home audiences. He makes stories that are banned, unauthorized in short, about the glitches of a society that relies too much on a self-imposed ideal of religion and the bureaucracy which typically accompanies that kind of belief. Or shall we call it what it is, fanaticism?
The character of Reza is played to smouldering, understated perfection by his namesake, TV and film actor Reza Akhlaghirad. He is a kind, quiet man, with dark eyes and a righteous viewpoint. He will not be involved with bribes, which are a way of life in Rasoulof's Iran. But at the end of a bribe there is always that unwritten accord between two people, and the unspoken understanding that their common imperfections make them comrades. When someone like Reza avoids the common practice at any cost, it makes the other side feel imperfect, faulty and immoral. And no one likes to be made to feel that way.
That is the basic premise of A Man of Integrity and what ensues is a chain reaction of misadventures, one more perilous and disturbing than the next, all of which involve Reza, his family and their livelihood.
It is dangerous to be righteous, profoundly so, in Iran -- that seems to be the thread of Rasoulof's film.
In the press kit, the filmmaker addresses western audiences with his "Producer's Notes": "I have so far produced up to six films, none of which ever screened in Iran – the land my stories and I belong to. Censorship’s jaws have shut all venues. Independent filmmakers, not dependent upon State funds for their production, constantly look for ways to circumvent censorship. To avoid the eyes of the censors and circumvent those crushing jaws, they either submit scenarios whose narratives are confined to the interior of an apartment or choose a location so remote that it practically puts the production out of their sight. However, all this inventiveness often ends up forgoing some of the common tools of cinematography: using small and non-professional cameras, renouncing to an operator and advanced lighting techniques, simple narratives... are ways independent cinematographers resort to keep production from additional harassment."
It is an interesting statement, as it also explains how other filmmakers banned in Iran, by their censorship body the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, continue to make some of the most beautiful films screened in festivals and cinemas around the world. From Jafar Panahi, to Ali Abbasi, whose Cannes Competition title Holy Spider was filmed in Jordan to avoid censors, with a few tricks, these magnificent filmmakers can go on producing.
Rasoulof's other works include the 2013 Manuscripts Don't Burn, and the 2020 Berlinale Golden Bear winner There Is No Evil. A Man of Integrity premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
Watching the film feels like a relentless attack on personal freedom. I can't remember another feature recently that made me so conscious of my own sense of liberty and thankful of my ability to make decisions without having to pull out money to make the wheels of bureaucracy turn. It is a claustrophobic viewpoint into the rabbit hole of being on the wrong side of history and should feel a bit like a lesson in being more openminded but also how thankful we should be that there are people around us with different opinions from ours.
This brings me to my final thoughts about A Man of Integrity, which I assure is a must-watch. At its most basic, it is a perfectly acted, beautifully shot film about the perils that follow us and are part of our personal karma. It is a film that will keep haunting your thoughts for days and may forever clear up this quagmire for us:
"Social corrupt [and corrupting] structures either crush or turn one into a link of corruption in the chain of corruption. Is there any other choice?"
Also featuring: Soudabeh Beizaee, Nasim Adabi, Misagh Zare, Zeinab Shabani and Zhila Shahi.
Written and Directed by: Mohammad Rasoulof,
Director of Photography: Ashkan Ashkani
Editors: Mohammadreza Muini / Meysam Muini
Set and Costume Design: Saeed Asadi