Susan Behrends Valenzuela
What do a prison, a dairy plant, and a deaf girl have in common? In “Ballad of a White Cow,” it is the formation of a permanent underclass — symbols of a seldom-seen Iran.
The country is no stranger to artistic dissent (Jafar Panahi’s entire oeuvre), but this devastating realist drama, co-directed by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam (who also stars), uncovers the bureaucracy of a repressive state. “Ballad” offers an ultra-fine critical examination of capital punishment through the story of a wife made a widow at the hands of the criminal justice machine.
Mina’s (Maryam Moghaddam) husband Babak is executed within the first minutes of the film. Then all of a sudden, he’s been dead a year, and she’s working in a dairy factory to support their young daughter, who is deaf. The camera lingers on Mina at her work station just long enough for the nothingness to creep in. There is no hope to be found among these milk cartons. “Ballad” subverts expected moments of dramatic escalation, earning the slow burn whilst giving audiences a glimpse into the stifling reality for most women in Iran.
Mina is at the mercy of an elaborate system of subjugation. The courts soon realize that they got the wrong guy, and what follows? Not a public reckoning, but dismissive, offensive monetary “compensation for an adult man.” Mina’s attempts to get justice through appeals are not so much thwarted as they are plainly ignored. Meanwhile, at home, she cannot bear to tell Bita (Avin Poor Raoufi) that her father has not been “away studying” and is actually never coming back. His life was judged crudely, then taken, and no one is answering for this loss. “It was written,” Mina’s brother-in-law tells her while cleaning his ears with his keys. By whom?
Enter Reza (Alireza Sani Far), a man who claims to have been Babak’s friend. We learn far earlier than Mina that he is really one of the judges who co-signed her husband’s execution, overcome with guilt. Now, if you have seen “Monster’s Ball” (2001), you might have suspected this twist. If you haven’t, well, sorry — pay no mind to the following sentence. This surprise is affecting despite the lack of Halle Berry, but one of the truly astonishing scenes comes shortly after when Reza confronts the warden.
There is much cruelty that man can excuse when he believes he has God’s will in mind. “Ballad” is intelligent and provocative, refuting the notion that a carceral system — or any man-made system, for that matter — can become unimpeachable through one specific interpretation of the word of God. Fate, though of great religious significance, can also be a way of absolving oneself of the responsibility of individual morality.
Though a character seeing the error of their ways is a time-worn trope, Reza’s attempt to care for Mina and Bita is a profoundly humanist intervention. This gesture, though couched in deceit, wrestles something away from you: the cynicism and disillusionment that had been building up until this point.
However, “Ballad” does not force forgiveness — survival colors the film more than anything else. A revenge fantasy is the closest Mina comes to liberation; but even then, it is meek. Mina cannot imagine deliverance, but she earns her tears, quiet as they may fall.
After grief, or alongside it, we must imagine a new way to live; that is the challenge the film leaves for us. “Ballad of a White Cow” ends just as it began, with an image of a white cow standing in a prison courtyard. Only now, the cow looks strangely holographic, like it’s hardly the same animal. But it is; our eyes are what’s changed. We no longer see the cow but the construction, the man-made prison that drew the life out of it.
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