Hypocrisy, injustice and a magnificently restrained performance from the lead, Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam’s examination of Iran’s strict penal system and the hypocrisies laid bare when a widowed mother demands justice in Ballad of A White Cow.
A year after her husband has been executed for his role in a murder, Mina’s (Moghaddam) fragile efforts to rebuild her life are destroyed when it emerges that her husband Babek was innocent. Witnesses have recanted statements and the whole incident has been turned on its head. Babek’s confession, brought about by months in prison — as well as implied torture or at the very least interrogation — was the word of man desperate to escape the situation he had placed his family in.
At a meeting with a member of the judicial system Mina and her brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimisam) are told bluntly that it was “God’s will” that Babek was killed, and that she will receive full payment for an adult male. Babek’s life, his death, his fatherhood, his love is reduced to a quantitive figure, “blood money” as Mina calls it, payment for her to move on from this injustice without any more fuss.
Moghaddam brings a quiet steel to the role of Mina, a woman who has had misfortune upon misfortune placed upon her shoulders; shortly after Babek’s innocence is revealed her father-in-law demands custody of her daughter Bita (Avin Purraoufi) on the grounds that she is an unfit mother. In the patriarchal society of Iran, the odds are once again stacked against her unless she gives up her independence and moves in with her husband’s family. The film is a slow and steady one, the camera lingers on her face for almost unbearable moments: her wide eyes glisten with tears that threaten to fall and the corner of her mouth trembles but her voice never wavers as she continues to demand an apology for Babek’s death, as well as her own continuing independence.
When a stranger, Reza (Alireza Sanifar), appears at her door with money that he owed her husband, hope is allowed to peek through the cracks and into Mina’s life. He says he is an old friend of her husband and proceeds to help her when she and Bita are forced to move. But there is a subtle desperation to his need to help and it soon becomes clear that the thing that binds them is deeper and more complex that they can both imagine.
The sparse cinematography captures Mina’s existence in a world that has been drained of all hope and happiness; a beige and grey colour palette dominates as the screen as she works a menial job in a factory and then begins the long walk home through the hazy Iranian countryside, a woman alone in the world but determined to make it without fully comprehending the obstacles that stand in front of her. Colour, or the lack of it, becomes such an integral part of Ballad of a White Cow that when Mina slowly and carefully applies a deep red lipstick it feels like a shout of triumph, a slow rekindling of her ability to maybe one day love again.
The intense vulnerability of Moghaddam’s performance is truly what brings the film together. Here, on her face, in the tightening muscles between her shoulder blades, the careful, measured precision of her expressions, the audience are drawn into her precarious, fiercely defended world. Ballad of a White Cow concisely portrays not only the harsh hypocrisies of Iranian society, but also the small glimmers of hope that are allowed to peak through the cracks.
Ballad of a White Cow screened at the virtual edition of the Berlinale 2021
by Rose Dymock