Much of modern Iranian cinema revolves around the repressive nature of a society indifferent to individual needs, where religious values risk suffocating fragile, innocent lives. “Ballad of a White Cow” doesn’t reinvent that trend, but it’s a particularly taut, engrossing example, compelled by one woman’s determination for justice and the lies that surround her at every turn. The movie turns on a constant stream of grief and guilt, even as it develops into a subtle thriller steeped in a set of relationships bound to collapse at any moment.
Co-directed by Maryam Moghaddam (in her narrative debut) and Behtash Sanaeeha (“Risk of Acid Rain”), “Ballad of a White Cow” bears all the hallmarks of the patient, absorbing character studies of Iranian heavyweights Mohammad Rasolouf and Asgar Farhadi, and deserves consideration alongside their strongest work. In fact, the plight of Mina (Moghaddam as well) wouldn’t look out of place as one of the chapters in “There Is No Evil,” the anthology of stories about Iranians impacted by the country’s rampant executions, which Rasolouf premiered last year. In Mina’s case, the executed person was her husband, but it took the government a full year to admit that he didn’t deserve it.
By then, the young widow is enmeshed in the difficult routine of raising her deaf young daughter Bita (Aviv Puffaoufi) while her husband’s brother (Pourya Rahimisam) helps her out. His father, meanwhile, remains an absent threat throughout — but fights to take control of young Bita away from her mother, in a ruthless bid to obtain “bloody money” for his son’s death.
At first, Mina seems to have settled into a routine of a silent sufferer, as she bounces between a thankless factory job and attempts to explain her husband’s absence to her daughter. When she and her former brother-and-law learn that the court mistakenly sentenced her husband to death, she melts into tears, the pain too intense and immediate to maintain her usual restraint. For the indifferent bureaucrat sitting across from her, the logic is simple enough: “We’re very sorry,” he says, offering her meager compensation. “It was, after all, god’s will.”
Just when Mina’s bad situation can’t get any worse, a peculiar angel shows up at her door in the form of Reza (Alirez Sanifar), a man who claims to have been close with Mina’s dead husband. The truth is much thornier: Reza is one of the guilt-stricken judges responsible for sentencing her husband to death, and now he feels responsible for fixing her broken life. He just can’t bring himself to admit as much.
It’s a masterful twist that allows these two focused performances to become the centerpiece of a quiet, suspenseful drama where every scene hovers in uncertain exchanges. After a defiant Mina takes out a local ad in the newspaper to call out the authorities for her action, Reza struggles with backlash from his estranged son, a showdown that results in tragedy and forces Reza to work even harder to support Mina’s circumstances. When she’s abruptly evicted, he even gives her a home, as the dynamic of their relationship teeters on the brink of romance. (In Iran, such matters are so taboo that Mina and Reza struggle to openly acknowledge the chemistry blossoming between them, and Mina tells her confused daughter that Reza is one of her uncles.)
The filmmakers, who co-wrote the script with Mehrdad Kouroshnia, sometimes overstate their themes. (“The right thing doesn’t mean much these days,” Mina sighs.) But they excel at building the intrigue of their story around a steady accumulation of tense moments. Eschewing a soundtrack and relying on long takes, they find unique ways to inject leisurely scenes with unexpected impact. That’s the case when Mina attempts to explain the complex her situation to her daughter, relying on sign language (which, in the aftermath of “CODA” and “Sound of Metal,” seems to be permeating contemporary cinema from every direction) to convey the death and dismay surrounding their lives.
When a certain shocking revelation takes place that shifts the mood of another scene, the camera gradually drifts away from her face, then returns to it to discover a vastly different expression. These subtle maneuvers litter “Ballad of a White Cow” with constant unpredictability, as Mina’s uncertain situation keeps evolving and she attempts to make sense of the sudden generosity that has entered her life.
In more than one scene, Mina’s haunted by the jarring vision of a white cow in the midst of prison barracks, and the image harks back to a Quran chapter about sacrifice. There’s a lot of sacrifice in “Ballad of a White Cow,” particularly when it comes to Reza and his unsustainable efforts to help the woman whose life he destroyed. But the movie makes it clear that no measure of atonement can replace the irreplaceable, especially in a world disinterested in people who want to do the right thing. The movie reaches its bracing conclusion in a profound, shocking confrontation, which unfolds in scant dialogue and pregnant pauses that pulsate with raw emotion. When these exhausted characters have nothing left to say, the filmmakers trust the power of cinema to fill in the gaps.
“Ballad of a White Cow” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.