“Life teaches everybody. Some learn quick, others slow. Some learn too much, others not enough.”
Iranian filmmaker Mohammed Rasoulof tells stories that deal with trying to live an ethical life in a less than conducive setting. A Man of Integrity shows the difficulty one man has in trying to live as he feels is right, when everything is built on corruption. Can he stay true to himself and still survive, or must he become the very thing he hates?
Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad) has abandoned the city for what should be a simpler life as a goldfish farmer in rural Iran. He is a man of principle. A man at the bank is willing to help him with his debt (which would require greasing the palm of various managers). Reza instead brings money to pay off the loan and penalties. He would rather pay more that pay a bribe. But such bribery is the way of life in his society.
The Corporation that controls everything in his area wants his land, and will interfere with water and will even get him jailed if he stands in their way. He could make some deals, and get powerful friends, but he doesn’t want to be part of that system. His wife Hadis (Soudebeh Beizaee) is more pragmatic. She views his stand as prideful. She begins working to save their life together. She is not afraid to use intimidation and power in the process. Little by little the corrupt system erodes Reza’s world and he eventually must act to set himself free—even if it means he must use the same methods that the Corporation has used against him.
This film premiered at Cannes in 2017. Rasoulof’s 2020 film There Is No Evil also has a theme of the corruption of the soul by an immoral system. The latter film, while still dark, has a much more hopeful view of whether people can bring change. In this film, although Rasoulof says in production notes that he wanted to write a hopeful story, the film has a very dark conclusion that shows that sometimes even when we win, the cost may be more than we can bear.
It is always tempting to see films such as this as a condemnation of a tyrannical regime. It is in part. Of the six films Rasoulof has made, none has been able to be seen in Iran. Rasoulof has also be sentenced to time in jail, although to date that hasn’t been enforced. The censorship in his homeland is a part of the corrupt system that he seeks to expose through his films.
The film should also be seen as a universal story of how difficult it can be to live out our ethics. We may wish the world were a moral place, but more often than not we will be disappointed. How will we respond when our own ethical stands go against the prevailing amorality of the culture around us? Politics, business, even (sadly) the church are all too often driven by ideas that we know are the way things work, but go against our core principles. Can we stand up to such a world? Or will we bend beneath the weight of its burdens?
A Man of Integrity is in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Big World Pictures.