Harrowing, defiant, and exemplifying through its very existence the moral courage its totalitarian villains stamp down, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn exposes the brutal measures Iran’s government takes against free expression, and does this so powerfully that, for fear of retaliation, its credits list no cast- or crewmember besides Rasoulof.
Rasoulof himself is now forbidden to leave his home country, far from his first punishment at the hands of a paranoid regime. (Manuscripts Don’t Burn exists despite its creator living under a 20-year ban from filmmaking.)
The film, while wrenching and audacious, is crafted with that humane and observational mastery of great Iranian cinema of recent decades: Even the lugs punishing writers for the state turn out to be regular guys battling their own consciences, and, early on, Rasoulof contributes a doozy of a sequence to the stockpile of that standby of Iranian film: real-time single-shot Frogger–style street crossings.
The build-up is patient, the story involving novelist Fourouzadeh learning that his new book can only be published with over 100 official changes; Khosrow, a freelance tough desperate for money to pay for his son’s hospitalization, is charged with recovering a document revealing the government’s involvement in the assassination attempts of writers, a document likely in the hands of Fourouzadeh.
The last third is gut-churning in its slow suspense, especially an inventive bit centered on a clothespin, but what lingers most, as in Rasoulof’s The White Meadows and Goodbye, is his honoring of life as it’s actually lived, even as he’s condemning what’s gone so wrong with it.