BALLAD OF A WHITE COW (Movie review)


Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Directors: Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Screenwriters: Mehrdad Kouroshniya, Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
Cast: Maryam Moghadam, Alireza Sani Far, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Avin Poor Raoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour
Screened at: Critics’link, NYC, 2/8/22
Opens: February 10, 2022

Ballad of a White Cow

Only fourteen countries still have the death penalty, most of them in Asia and Africa, and to the shame of our Western democracy some of our own states still live in the Middle Ages in that regard. A principal argument against its use is that it has not proved to inhibit would-be killers, which means, let’s admit it: we execute people for revenge. While I cannot think of many cases in the U.S. in which an innocent man has been punished with death, there is nonetheless the cardinal argument: that judges and juries can make mistakes and, once a man is given the needle or the rope, he is never coming back.

Iran, interestingly enough, may allow the family of a condemned man to forgive him, thus releasing him from the extreme penalty. In the case of Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s “Ballad of a White Cow,” remarkably, when the Iranian government discovers that it had executed an innocent man, it takes steps to admit its mistake and to give his widow a cash settlement.

In directing what is more or less a chamber piece with two principals, Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha situate director Moghadam in the principal role as Mina, shown early on making a final visit to her husband in prison, implicitly believing like most others that he is guilty of the crime. She is herself treated like a guilty widow who is fired from her job in a factory making beverages, thrown out of her apartment because a man unrelated to her had an innocent conversation with her behind closed doors, and is chased by her brother-in-law (Pourya Rahimiam) who is hitting on her. How does the society expect her to care for her deaf and mute daughter Bita (Avin Poor Raoufi), who is told that her dad is “far away” and that when they both get old they will see him again?

As the story progresses with thankfully no music in the soundtrack to tell us how to react emotionally, Maryam is grateful to Reza (Alireza Sanifar), who gives her money, though she does not realize at first that the donations are to assuage his guilt feelings for being one of the judges that sentenced him to death. (He did not participate in the court proceedings but made up his mind solely from the written testimony.) He is guilty as well of a lesser lapse in judgment when, because he caused the woman’s eviction from her apartment by visiting her behind closed doors.

We in the United States, who consider Iran to be along with China, Russia and North Korea our principal adversary, are eager to point out Iran’s limitations on a woman’s freedom: forcing women to wear head scarves while men have no required “fashions,” disallowing even the most innocent visit to a woman’s residence by someone unrelated, and leaning on religion to such an extent than when a mistake results in an innocent man’s hanging it’s “God’s will.” The cow of the title refers to a passage in the Quran when Moses orders a cow to be sacrificed for a man’s death—the animal shown near the opening as a computerized white cow being prepared for slaughter. A metaphor is offered upon metaphor when Mina serves a glass of warm milk to Reza, who, slowly realizing that Mina has learned the truth may now serve as an offering to Allah for an innocent man’s death.

Chamber pieces like this one are necessarily disciplined and restrained, giving us in the audience a chance to observe Mina’s humanism. “Ballad of a White Cow” punctuates co-director Maryam Moghadam’s dignified performance as an aggrieved woman, perhaps wearing black for a year after her husband’s death. Her silence while serving the judge who essentially killed her husband hits home with the audience better than melodramatic flourishes with music or a stab at outright revenge could not.

In Farsi (Persian) with English subtitles.

105 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+