I’ve seen plenty of movies whose cast and crew should wish to remain anonymous, but never one this good in which they actually are. Manuscripts Don’t Burn is the latest drama from Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof, best known here for the political allegory Iron Island (2005), and the new movie—a tale of government censorship, repression, and murder—is so uncompromising that the only onscreen credit belongs to Rasoulof. After he and fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi were arrested for shooting a movie about the disputed 2009 presidential election, Rasoulof fled to Hamburg, where he was living when Manuscripts Don’t Burn won a prize from the International Federation of Film Critics at the Cannes film festival. In September 2013, Rasoulof returned to Iran, where, relieved of his passport, he’s been cooling his heels in Tehran ever since. None of his films has ever been released in his native land.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn grew out of a 1996 incident in which 21 Iranian dissidents were targeted for death by the Ministry of Intelligence. Invited to a literary conference in Armenia, the dissidents were traveling by bus in a mountainous region of northwestern Iran when their driver steered the vehicle toward a steep ravine and then leaped to safety. (The passengers managed to regain control of the bus before it plunged over the edge.) The fictional Manuscripts Don’t Burn opens nearly two decades later, when one of the survivors has written a memoir that touches on the incident and intelligence agents are dispatched to recover the manuscript and silence the author for good. Ironically, one of the assassins is the very man who tried to pilot the bus into the ravine all those years ago, and Rasoulof is cagey enough to make him a highly sympathetic character; deeply concerned for his young son, whose chronic illness has cost him a fortune in medical bills, he checks his bank account from various ATMs, hoping to see a credit from the agency for his latest homicide.
When Rasoulof writes about government censorship, he knows what he’s talking about, and one of the most affecting scenes in Manuscripts Don’t Burn considers the weariness and despair of artists who sacrifice their personal safety in the name of intellectual freedom, only to wonder whether their countrymen even want it. “Today’s generation doesn’t give a damn about politics,” the balding poet Kian explains to his novelist friend Forouzandeh. “The Network Generation wants to live. Pleasure, speed, Facebook, Twitter—those kids have Steve Jobs as their idol. They don’t give a shit about Che.” Panahi, who was arrested alongside Rasoulof, has been banned from making films for 20 years, and though he’s conspired to shoot three features since then, they may be more significant as acts of defiance than as art. By the time Panahi’s ban expires, he’ll be 70 and Rasoulof will be 58. Will they sit together at some kitchen table, like the characters in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, drinking vodka and admitting that the world has passed them by?