Movie Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)
Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof likes opposites. He began his 2011 film “Goodbye” with someone saying hello, and he begins “A Man of Integrity” with the title character, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), engaged in an illicit activity: fermenting alcohol inside watermelons and hiding them below the floorboards in his small shack on his fish farm in northern Iran.
Immediately, two men appear asking about the watermelons. They search, can’t find them, but take away a rifle whose permit is expired. Are they cops or private contractors? At the outset we think the former but by the end we’re not so sure.
We’re not sure of a lot throughout the film.
Sleeping with the fishes
Where’s the “integrity” of the title? Here: Rather than pay a bribe to a bank official to delay mortgage payments, Reza sells his car and tries to do it legit. Things get worse from there. It’s like Serpico refusing the bribe; the corrupt in power no longer trust him. They need him to be one of them. And if he isn’t one of them, he must be excised.
That's when the fish in his fish farm begin to die. Eyes burning, Reza tracks things to Assad, his neighbor. He’s in the midst of pulling up the chains of a dam which may have kept fresh water from them when a figure appears over his shoulder. Next thing we know, Assad has a broken arm and Reza is in jail for assault. Frustrations now mount for Reza’s wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee). Reza is supposed to be released after 24 hours, but there’s always a delay, or new rules or new charges, or prematurely closed offices. She brings in her brother to help navigate the corrupt system, and even then it takes five days. Finally back in his own bed, Reza, the next morning, awakens to fresh horror: birds swooping on his farm, attracted by the scent of dead fish. They’ve been poisoned.
For a time, I wondered what the movie would become. Would we simply watch Reza’s downward trajectory? From refusing to leave his farm to agreeing to sell it to being offered half of what it's worth? Or nothing? At every turn, the straightjacket is tightened. His wife is the head of a school, which Assad’s daughter attends, from whom she finds out Assad’s arm was never broken. Hadis sends a message to Assad through the girl. Assad sends a message back: He pulls the girl from the school.
I kept wondering about the watermelon-fermented wine seen in the first act. Was that a way out? No. It’s for Reza’s personal use—even though it’s been prohibited for Muslims in the Islamic Republic since 1979. He takes it to an underground spring—a literal man cave—where he drinks and rests and thinks. And plots.
Akhlaghirad has a handsome, powerful presence. His eyes burn. They burn in part because he can’t see a way out as a man of integrity; so he becomes its opposite. It’s a movie of escalations. Reza is trapped so he traps the well-connected Assad by framing him for drug use. Assad, from prison, engineers a response: He burns down Reza’s house. Reza then uses a corrupt prison guard to bring him poisoned drugs. Assad is killed, and, at his funeral, Reza attends and stares down his children with those burning eyes.
An offer he can’t refuse
“A Man of Integrity,” which won “Un Certain Regard” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is beautifully art-directed but often slow-moving, and it uses a verbal shorthand to explain complex Iranian societal matters. For an outsider like me, much has to be guessed at, and even now, writing this, I’ve often got my hands in the air. One review mentioned that Reza was a former univeristy professor. When did that come up? And in what period was the movie set? Is it contemporary, or is that news footage of Khomeni on TV?
So what kind of movie does “Integrity” become? It’s a lose-by-winning movie. Reza wins but he doesn‘t. In winning, he loses. Just as Michael Corleone, in “Godfather Part III,” tries to raise his family above the corruption, only to find greater corruption among the legitimately powerful, so Reza, by defeating Assad, wins the admiration of the powerful and corrupt, and, in a final irony, is offered Assad’s position. Reza wants to be a man of integrity but the corrupt machine doesn’t allow it; and in the end he’s offered a prime spot in that very corrupt machine. It’s an offer he can’t refuse.