EIFF film review: Ballad of a White Cow
Maryam Moghaddam, actor8
Maryam Moghaddam, co-director8
Injustice and atonement8
Matthew Turner | On 26, Aug 2021
Directors: Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam
Cast: Maryam Moghaddam, Alireza Sanifar, Pourya Rahimisam, Avin Purraoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour
Where to watch Ballad of a White Cow online in the UK: EIFF 2021
This film is streaming as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. For more information on the line-up and how it works, click here.
Iranian actress Maryam Moghaddam (who also co-directed and co-wrote the film) stars in this powerful, moving drama about the devastating repercussions of a wrongful execution. An emotionally gripping tale of secrets and lies, it shines a revealing light on various injustices in present-day Iranian society.
Moghaddam plays Mina, an Iranian widow raising her deaf daughter Bita (Avin Purraoufi) on her own after the execution of her husband, who was convicted of murder following a violent altercation. When a witness comes forward and exonerates her husband, the courts inform Mina of their mistake and offer to compensate her “the full price of an adult male” (270 million tomans, or $6,500, if you’re wondering). However, Mina refuses to accept the court-appointed blood money and pushes for a public apology and repercussions for those involved.
Meanwhile, Mina is visited by Reza (Alireza Sanifar), who claims he owed her husband a debt and offers to help out however he can, even securing her a cheap new flat after she’s evicted from her home. As the pair grow closer, their relationship becomes mutually supportive, but Reza is hiding a secret that threatens their newfound connection.
Moghaddam is magnificent in the lead role, delivering a complex and multi-layered performance that requires her to effectively repress her deeper emotions in public because of restrictive standards in Iranian society. Behind closed doors, however, it’s a different story – an actual through-the-door confrontation is devastating to watch – and much of the pleasure in the film comes from seeing her grow in confidence, signified by the way she applies lipstick in a key scene.
The supporting turns are equally good. Sanifar suffuses Reza with a haunting sadness that exerts a powerful emotional grip, not least because the script lets the audience into his secret early on, so we know what he’s wrestling with and feel the crushing tension as a result. Purraoufi is utterly charming as movie-obsessed Bita, even if it’s slightly difficult to believe her naivety about her father’s death, given the number of films she watches.
Though it’s clearly a powerful indictment of both Iran’s capital punishment system and the restrictions placed upon women in Iranian society (Mina is evicted because an unrelated man is seen entering her house; she’s also not allowed to rent as a single mother), the script is careful not to indulge in overt critique, instead letting the various injustices speak loudly for themselves. That extends to the influence of religion in the judicial system – the judges matter-of-factly dismiss their mistake as “God’s will”, refusing to accept their own failings.
Moghaddam and co-director Behtash Sanaeeha pack the film with memorable scenes and moments, from a pair of devastating set pieces involving Mina’s facial reactions to tiny set-up-and-pay-off details, such as the sudden appearance of a dog in a flat. It’s also beautifully shot throughout, courtesy of cinematographer Amin Jafari, whose meaningfully held static shots and precision framing combine to powerful dramatic effect.
Ballad of a White Cow is available to rent at the Edinburgh International Film Festival until 8.30pm on Thursday 26th August. Book tickets here.