In his sixth feature, clandestinely shot in the north of the country, Iranian helmer-writer Mohammad Rasoulof (“The Twilight,” “Iron Island,” “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”) returns to the theme that underlies all of his work: the means by which an authoritarian regime succeeds in silencing independent voices. “A Man of Integrity” is a tense, enraging drama about corruption and injustice, set in a small village. The essence of the plot — “in this country you’re either the oppressed or the oppressor” — provides a scathing critique of contemporary Iranian society. Although the film will be banned in its home nation, fests and niche arthouse distributors in most territories will welcome this brave, underground production for the way it manages to resonate on both specific and universal levels.
Why brave? For one thing, Rasoulof continues to work with a not-yet-executed prison sentence hanging over his head. And while underground productions take place in Iran, they are not strictly legal. Moreover, it’s the rare filmmaker who is capable of viewing and critiquing his society through an ethical and moral lens in a rigorous way. While his better-known compatriot Asghar Farad touches on similar themes, Farhadi’s critiques are more tied to the behavior of his characters, whereas Rasoulof analyzes and calls out the systems that control them.
Here, Rasoulof’s fine screenplay resembles a classic tragedy as he examines what defines a human being in a society that has lost its moral center. His eponymous protagonist is Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), whose stubborn desire for justice makes him something of an Iranian Michael Kohlhaas; a man who will try to fight legally until the end to achieve justice. He’s a former Tehrani who was expelled from a teachers’ college for protesting the bad food served to workers in a factory, so he moved north to the countryside, trying to make a life in which he would be neither oppressor nor oppressed. Unfortunately, the dusty burg in which he chose to settle and establish a goldfish farm is a company town, where a mysterious and powerful corporate entity calls the shots — and has designs on his property. In certain ways, the atmosphere of threat is not far removed from that of a classic Western, but while law and order is eventually restored in American oaters, that’s not the case here.
Rasoulof makes Reza’s uncompromising nature explicit from the beginning. He’s a man who prefers to pay penalties for late payments on bank loans rather than greasing the wheels to obtain an extension. His wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), the head teacher at the local high school, both admires and despairs of his hard-headedness. But sadly for Reza, he’s living in a place where there’s no true rule of law. His neighbors are in thrall to the company’s desires and refuse to stick their necks out for him in his quest for justice and accountability since social pressure — or something worse — punishes those who don’t adopt the prevailing social values.
Reza’s battle with the company is epitomized by his ongoing struggle with its local enforcer, Abbas (Misagh Zare Zeinab). Small-town evil personified, Abbas killed his own young daughter and managed to pin the blame on someone else. When he attacks Reza, it’s the latter that ends up in jail. And when Abbas obtains a false doctor certificate for a broken arm, it’s the financially strapped Reza who is ordered to pay compensation.
As the disasters that befall Reza multiply, Rasoulof finds visual equivalents that underscore the character’s mentality. Numerous shower scenes in which Reza scrubs away at himself stress how dirtied he feels by the dishonesty that surrounds him. And his lonely road is perfectly epitomized by a scene in which Reza is headed in the direction of his beautiful two-story home and encounters an ominous phalanx of motorcycles speeding toward him.
As the attractive central couple, Akhlaghirad and Beizaee evince a strong chemistry. Rasoulof underlines their physical attraction by implying several sex scenes, something that’s so rare in his work that it seems almost shocking.
Working with his longtime crew and ace DP Ashkan Ashkani, the director takes advantage of the gray light of winter and numerous night scenes to underscore the oppressive atmosphere in which his characters exist.