July 6, 2021
by Carla Hay
“Ballad of a White Cow”
Directed by Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha
Persian (Farsi) with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in in Tehran, Iran, the dramatic film “Ballad of a White Cow” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle class.
Culture Clash: A widowed mother, whose wrongly imprisoned husband was executed for murder, gets unexpected financial help from a man whom the widow does not know was directly involved in the outcome of her husband’s murder case.
Culture Audience: “Ballad of a White Cow” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Iranian culture, injustice in a criminal court system and the toll that big secrets can take on a relationship.
“Ballad of a White Cow” delivers a quietly devastating portrait of what happens in the aftermath of a wrongly convicted prisoner’s execution and how good intentions can be poisonous if they’re based in deceit. Maryam Moghadam is the star, co-director and co-writer of this impactful drama that takes place in Iran, but its themes are universal and have no national boundaries. It’s far from an upbeat film, but it has glimmers of hope that the people in this tragic story might one day find a way to heal.
Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha directed “Ballad of a White Cow,” whose screenplay was written by Moghadam, Sanaeeha and Mehrdad Kouroshniya. The movie had its European premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Viewers of this movie get glimpses into the Iranian criminal justice system and how it shrouds in secrecy from the public the identities of judges who decide the fates of defendants.
“Ballad of a White Cow” opens with a distraught Mina Parsa (played by Moghadam) spending time with her imprisoned husband Eghbali “Babak” Parsa for the last time before he’s executed for murdering a man during a fight. Babak confessed to the murder, but it was a false confession because, unbeknownst to Babak, the victim (whose name was Rashedi) was still alive when Barak ran away, and another man came along and murdered Rashedi. (There are no flashbacks to the crime.) Mina has always believed that Babak was innocent.
After the execution (which is not shown in the movie), Mina is so grief-stricken that she seems somewhat detached from reality. She still goes to her job working on an assembly line at a milk bottling factory, but her demeanor is of someone whose emotions are numb and her mind is elsewhere. She’s still able to take care of her loving 7-year-old daughter Bita (played by Avin Poor Raoufi), who happens to be deaf. But Mina doesn’t have the energy to do things (such as go to the movies) with her daughter that Mina used to have before Babak died.
Babak’s imprisonment and execution has brought such shame on Mina that she can’t bring herself to tell Bita the truth. Instead, Mina lies and tells Bita that Babak is on a trip somewhere far away and she doesn’t know when Babak will come back home. Bita can sense her mother’s sadness and asks her one day, “Why are you frowning?” Mina tells Bita, “I’m just tired.”
Meanwhile, Bita has been struggling in school. She tells her mother that she doesn’t like the people there, and Bita says that her teacher is mean to her. Bita doesn’t want to go back to school and doesn’t want to do any schoolwork. It’s later revealed that Bita’s problems in school mostly have to do with people at the school knowing what happened to her father, but Bita (because she was lied to) insists to everyone that her father is still alive and traveling somewhere.
A year after Babak’s death, Mina is in dire financial straits because Babak had no pension or life insurance, and her factory job doesn’t pay enough to cover all of her expenses. Mina applies for government assistance and is told that she’s entitled to 200,000 tomans a month (which is about $47.50 in 2021 U.S. dollars), including any benefits because Bita is a special-needs child. Mina’s apartment manager (played by Lili Farhadpour) is understanding about Mina being late with the rent, because she feels sympathy for Mina being a widow with a young child to raise on her own.
One person who doesn’t believe that Mina is financially struggling is Babak’s aggressive brother (played by Pouria Rahimi, also known as Pouria Rahimi Sam), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Babak’s brother visits Mina one day and tells her that Babak’s father believes that Babak secretly left a stash of money for Mina and Bita. Mina vehemently denies it. Babak’s brother has power of attorney over his father, who is in ill health, and so Babak wants this imaginary stash of money to take control of it.
While Mina is grieving over the loss of her husband, something unexpected happens. The real murderer confesses to the crime, and it’s proven that he was the real culprit. A government official meets with Mina and makes a private apology to Mina about Babak’s execution. The government gives Mina a settlement of 270 million tomas (or a little more than $64,000 in 2021 U.S. dollars) for the execution mistake.
But that’s not enough for Mina. After she reacts with shock and horror that her husband was wrongfully executed, she gets angry. She tries to find a way to get the government to make a public apology, but she encounters many roadblocks. She also wants some type of justice for slander, because she believes the government ruined Babak’s reputation.
It’s during this time that Mina gets a surprise visit at home from a stranger, who identifies himself as Reza Esfandiari (played by Alireza Sani Far) and who says that he was a friend of Babak’s. Reza tells Mina that he owed 10 million tomans (or about $2,375 in 2021 U.S. dollars) to Babak. Mina says she doesn’t want the money, but Reza insists on writing her a check for that amount. Reza also tells Mina that if there’s anything else she might need, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask for his help.
Shortly after Reza’s visit, Mina’s apartment manager tells Mina that Mina has been evicted, because the manager saw this male stranger visit Reza in her home. In Muslim culture, it’s taboo for a single woman to have an unrelated man in her home. Mina has a limited amount of time to find a new place for herself and Bita to live before the eviction goes into effect. And it’s very difficult for Mina to find a new place to live because many apartment buildings will not rent to widows or other unmarried women.
Just when it looks like Mina and Bita will become homeless, Reza comes to the rescue. He happens to own an apartment that he isn’t using. And he offers to let Mina and Bita live there rent-free, as long as they keep the apartment in good shape. Why is Reza being so generous to Mina and Bita?
It’s because his real name is Reza Shallal, and he was on the judging panel that decided that Babak would be sentenced to death. It’s a panel of judges whose identities are kept secret from the public, out of concerns that the judges will be retaliated against. Reza feels an enormous amount of guilt over the wrongful execution of Babak, so he wants to make amends. However, Reza is afraid of telling Mina his true identity. Reza’s secret isn’t spoiler information to viewers, because it’s in the movie trailer for “Ballad of a White Cow.”
Reza’s first experience in judging a death-sentence case was Babak’s case. It’s revealed in the movie that Reza had previously worked in the civil courts system and had recently transferred to the criminal courts system when Babak’s case came his way. Reza deeply regrets becoming a criminal court judge, and he wants to quit. “Ballad of a White Cow” has tension-filled scenes of Reza discussing his disillusionment with a colleague (played by Farid Ghobadi), who advises Reza not to resign from his position.
Adding to Reza’s personal turmoil, he has a son in his late teens or early 20s (Reza’s only child) named Maysam, who despises Reza. Maysam has been living with Reza, who is either divorced or widowed. Reza and Maysam’s scenes together have a lot of unspoken backstory, but based on what they say to each other, it seems as if Maysam has a lot of resentment toward Reza because Maysam feels that Reza was a neglectful father. It’s implied that Reza was a workaholic for most of Maysam’s life, and now Reza regrets it, especially when Maysam abruptly tells Reza one day that he’s moving away to join the military.
There’s more tragedy in this story, which will keep viewers guessing on how long Reza can keep his secret from Mina and how long Mina can keep her secret from Bita. Over time, Reza befriends Mina, who thinks it’s a little odd that Reza is going out of her way to help her. She takes his word for it that Reza was a friend of Babak. When she asks Reza questions about Babak to see how how well Reza knew him, Reza is able to give vague answers that sound convincing.
Mina is also a little suspicious of Reza at first because she thinks he might have ulterior sexual motives for being so generous to her. But when she sees that he really wants nothing in return, she relaxes around him and even lets Reza get close to Bita, almost as if he’s a surrogate uncle to Bita. Because Mina trusts Reza to be around her child, it adds an extra layer of burden to Reza’s lies.
“Ballad of a White Cow” never really shakes the feeling of heartbreak, because even though Mina’s problem about her living situation has been resolved, it’s under deceptive circumstances on Reza’s part. Even though Reza seems to be a kind and caring new friend to Reza, at a time when she really needs a friend, he can never reveal his true identity to her or he would lose the friendship. And when Mina is dishonest to Bita about what happened to Babak, it’s another betrayal that might have had good intentions but is ultimately damaging.
All of the acting in “Ballad of a White Cow” is convincing and nuanced, but the movie’s biggest strength is in making viewers think about what they would do if they were Mina or Reza. There’s also a level of suspense over how or if Mina and Reza will be able to continue their deceptions. It might be easy to judge and say they made bad choices, but both Mina and Reza are both emotonally hurting in different ways that could certainly cloud their judgment.
The movie’s writing, acting and direction are solid for this type of movie, which makes good use of its low budget. As for why the movie is called “Ballad of a White Cow,” it has to do with a memorable image in the film of a white cow standing in the middle of a courtyard, as men stand on one side of the courtyard, and women stand on the other. Is this cow about to be milked or will it be slaughtered? The same question could be posed about the complicated friendship of the two lonely people at the center of this melancholy story.
UPDATE: MUBI will premiere “Ballad of a White Cow” on February 10, 2022.