Movie Review: ‘A Man of Integrity’ Presents the Asphyxiating Dilemma Between Morality and Survival
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
Writer: Mohammad Rasoulof
Stars: Reza Akhlaghirad, Soudabeh Beizaee, Nasim Adabi
Synopsis: A goldfish farmer in a small Iranian village faces financial ruin when his river-sourced water supply is cut off.
First released in 2017 as part of the Un Certain Regard selection of the Cannes Film Festival, A Man of Integrity, Mohammad Rasoulof’s penultimate film, is finally being released in the United States.
The movie, with its incisive message about Iranian society, proved to be too critical for the local government, prosecuting Rasoulof for “promoting propaganda against the system”. These charges are all too familiar for the director, having faced them every time he works in a new film since 2010. His determination to talk about his country offers moral dilemmas and inconclusive points of view about a society that is too corrupted and immersed in its own vices to strive for a rapid change (a characteristic practically applicable to any other country in the world).
Rasoulof is famous for tackling social themes and avoiding judgmental conclusions. His films invite reflection and debate. As a perfect example, we have his most recent effort, This Is No Evil. The 2020 production is vital viewing for those interested in capital punishment, the way it affects a whole community and its levels of immersion in the Iranian social fabric. Through separate stories, Rasoulof weaves enough doubts and points of view to at least unsettle those who still support this cruel practice.
Similarly, A Man of Integrity tackles dense themes and the way they affect a whole community: the weight of corruption and the conditioned response according to personal principles. How much can someone bear in the name of their ideals? When is it necessary to play the game of others and “relinquish” to the practices they swore to never entertain? These dilemmas are addressed through Reza’s (Reza Akhlaghirad) story, a man with strong moral beliefs who left his life in Tehran to settle down in an isolated town with his wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) and their only son. Soon it becomes clear that Reza enjoys his solitude and doesn’t appreciate the corrupt systems that define societal involvement, instead preferring to spend his days tending his goldfish in his aquatic farm (a quiet and gentle trade that contrasts with the emotional upheaval he faces when dealing with the outside world).
When Reza starts having problems with his neighbor, things spin out of control until they reach a point of no return. Will he give up his life and start anew somewhere else or will he play the game that he despises to claim back his life and peace of mind? Rasoulof explores Reza’s resoluteness as both a virtue and a toxic trait that soon enough poisons everything within him and his safe circle, just as the toxicity of his adversary poisons everything around him. The film is a discreet exhibition of toxic masculinity, often unveiled through the eyes of Hadis, who is too rational to see the cold war that is taking place between her husband and the other man, and who appeals to reason to solve a problem that mainly exists because of bravado and emotion.
Presented as a slow burn thriller, A Man of Integrity thrives in its silence and naturalistic sounds. It is not until the final scene (one of the best endings of the year) and the end credits that we hear the sole melody that appears in the film, one marked by melancholy and fatality, as we face the result of one man’s crusade against a whole system. Whether it is Reza finding solace in the silence of a cave, observing the people he must convince to do the right thing, or becoming stern when things become too intense or dealing with violence once things get out of control, the film relies heavily in the surrounding sounds or plain silence, giving it a realistic, documentary-like feeling.
Still, the main reason for the film’s effectiveness is the pair at the center: Reza Akhlaghirad and Soudabeh Beizaee. Akhlaghirad presents an introverted man who feels too much but doesn’t know how to convey his anger and emotions. While apparently angry all the time, the gentle moments presented on screen are clues to his tenderness and vulnerability. We witness the tragic story of a man that is desperate to catch a break, but the system around him is designed to make him lose hope. While it can be easy to rely on sentimentalism or melodrama, Rasoulof maintains his story in the realm of reality. As for Beizaee, her intensity and eloquence contrast with Akhlaghirad’s stoicism. Resourceful, compassionate, and pragmatic, Beizaee’s character shows an agency and determination that makes her husband wake up and look beyond himself. Each represents different sides of the same coin as they deal with a threat that is too obstructive and exhausting for their innocent minds.
A Man of Integrity can easily be compared to Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, a film where the main character faces a nightmare as the community around him becomes an obstacle instead of a support system. Nevertheless, the most effective comparison would be Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon¸ a fantastic film that represents the problematic bond between a family and their home city, and the desperate measures they take to leave it behind. In A Man of Integrity, Rasoulof’s main character tries to start afresh in a new home only to find himself immersed in the vices from which he was running. The film becomes a fable too honest and evidently comes from a man who is constantly harassed by the system he seems to know very well.