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Ethical Cinema

Feeling the Consequences


Is ethics a question of consequences? Certainly three recent ethical outings see the exploration of their moral system through the nature of the consequential. The Salesman, Graduation and Harmonium are all densely narrativised accounts of the ethical experience, an interesting examination of what happens next less with a thriller’s need for discovery, than the moral need for appropriateness. In each film we watch not with an awareness of the tangible dangers evident in a thriller where, as Raymond Chandler so astutely put it, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.” (The Simple Art of Murder) No, these are dangers because the men go down roads that are not themselves mean, but down which they find the meanness in themselves and the possible absence of honour.


Let us think of The Salesman first. Here we have an apparently happily married couple in a fix. Their apartment building starts to collapse and a kindly friend has an empty flat, insisting they take it for the immediate future. Yet one evening while the husband is out the wife is showering and finds herself attacked; here the whodunnit of the story becomes intertwined with the ethical dimension of what we will call the causation of the culpable. Instead of the thriller aspect that means the culprit must be found, Asghar Farhadi’s film focuses instead on the fissures that become evident in the wake of the incident. It isn’t that the film doesn’t pay attention to the husband’s search for the person who attacked his wife; more that Farhadi muses over the nature of the husband’s response in the process of finding out who happened to do it. It seems that the person living in the apartment previously was a prostitute and that the man who attacked Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) was looking for that woman.

It feels now like a favour has turned into a curse.  While their last abode was crumbling in front of their eyes, their new apartment is fine but what is crumbling now is their marriage as Rana and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) live in an apartment that has a history they are oblivious to but which is affecting their lives. Rana is so traumatised she is afraid to shower and accidentally spends the money on food left by the attacker thinking that it had been left by Emad. But the person had also left a mobile phone in the flat and a white van outside the apartment. With this information Emad determines to find the attacker while, in the process, increasingly neglects the things that have made his life meaningful thus far: his relationships with his wife, with his students (he is a teacher) and the theatre (along with his wife he is acting in Death of a Salesman). In early scenes in the film it is obvious the young students adore him; halfway through he is unresponsive to their needs and snappy over their behaviour. In the theatre he calls the person who has given them the apartment (and who also has a role in the play) a degenerate as he deviates from Arthur Miller’s text.

The film offers a high degree of suspense as Emad works out who happened to attack his wife but this epistemological enquiry is always secondary to the ethical exploration. If the thriller usually subordinates ethics to epistemology, Farhadi insists on the former over the latter, in keeping with his earlier work Firework Wednesday, About Elly and A Separation. There are mysteries in the earlier films too (Elly’s disappearance, for example, or the missing money in A Separation that the couple believes the person looking after the ageing father has stolen) but they are irrelevant to the ethical enquiry the films set out to explore, and one way of explaining this is to think of the epistemological in film as linear and the ethical as circular. If we can quote the well-known formula of Chandler, we might think of John Wayne’s line in Stagecoach: “there are some things a man just can’t run away from” as he determines to avenge his brother’s death. This notion of vengeance might have an ethical dimension in the epistemologically inclined film, but the purpose rests much more on will and knowledge. Whether it is Ransom with Mel Gibson getting back his kidnapped son, I Spit on Your Grave, Point Blank, or Mad Max, the emphasis is on payback – the title also of another Mel Gibson film (a remake of Point Blank) as he became the actor par mediocre for this type of cinema. Some of these films will be masterpieces (the original Point Blank), but often the epistemological drive offers little wriggle room for complexity, and the ethical would be seen to slow the films down, getting in the way of their forward trajectory.

We use the terms ethics and epistemology in their simplest formulations: in the former the wish to behave well; in the latter the desire to know. In many thrillers the desire to behave well is irrelevant next to this desire to know, and while there may be the occasional nod to good behaviour as the hero refuses to shoot the killer in the back, usually the emphasis is on getting your man. Think of numerous chase sequences that have almost no ethical dimension at all, with cars smashed, people frightened, and crowds dispersed as the hero chases or escapes. Imagine if you happened to be in the centre of Paris during Bourne’s virtuoso driving display in the Mini, and review it from the perspective of the pedestrian. The Bourne films pursue knowledge; they don’t enquire into ethics. As a general rule the faster the film the less ethical options the films make available. The more ethical enquiry offered, the slower the film is likely to be. This is exactly what happens in Salesman. Every advancement in the narrative is contained by a questioning of the ethos behind it. Rana is more interested in returning to a comfortable relationship with herself and her husband rather than finding out who happened to attack her, while her husband’s grim search constantly leaves us questioning his values at the same time as the narrative question of who did it hangs less pertinently over the film.

We don’t want to claim many a thriller, western or action film doesn’t possess this dimension, with John Ford westerns, Stagecoach, The Searchers and of course The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all interested in morality. Indeed philosopher Robert Pippin sees in The Searchers, a “setting out [of] a Conradian framework as sweeping as Heart of Darkness, in which an outward quest or search figures the search within, the place of Ethan’s heart of darkness. True to all great works of art, nothing is resolved, and the ending scene is as complex as the fiction that the narrator invents and reports…in Conrad’s novella.” (Hollywood Westerns and American Myth) Another philosopher sees (rather optimistically) the ethical in Quentin Tarantino. Paul W. Kahn says “with him we wonder whether violence can be controlled to advance an articulable political end” as he comments on Inglourious Basterds. Drawing parallels with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib he says, “We don’t know what to do with the terrorist any more than the film knows what to do with the Nazi.” Yet many a western, a war film and a thriller are not ethical in the manner that the films we are discussing here happen to be. Only The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence would seem to be premised on the ethical as it muses over the question of whether it is better to print the truth or the legend. Does it make sense for the lawyer to take the glory for dispatching a baddie as the old west moves from the law of the gun to the law of the statute, rather than the gunslinger who did the deed but who is still a product of the old west rather than the new lawfulness? Does a film predicate itself on the ethical or is it a by-product of it we might ask? In Tarantino’s films it is surely an incidental aspect and not a central concern.

In The Salesman the ethical is absolutely central, and thus cannot at all end on Emad finding out who it happened to be who entered the house and attacked his wife. It must conclude on what he is capable of, as we wonder how ethically low he will stoop in his determination to protect his honour and defend a wife who has consistently said revenge is not at all the point. In many a mainstream film that incidentally attends to the moral, the revenge is the thing; honour must be evident. Here Emad arrives at the dishonourable as he finds that the figure responsible is an aging family man, married for many years and with grown-up children and an illness that means the treatment meted out by Emad could endanger his life. Emad decides that the revenge will not be complete until the man has been totally humiliated as he insists his wife and his daughter come to the apartment and hear exactly what happened: that the old man has been frequenting prostitutes, one of a number of older men it seems who had visited the previous tenant for sexual satisfaction. Rana sees no point in humiliating the man, and threatens to leave Emad if he pursues this act of vengeance, but Emad is caught in the logic of revenge just as the film delineates the logic of ethical consequences. As the old man collapses as his wife and daughter arrive, we are in no doubt that the logic of revenge is irrelevant next to the ethics of consequences. This is generally what we don’t see in the mainstream revenge film: the ethos is very much secondary to the revenge. But what happens here is that the revenge leaves the hero ethically excavated, with an old man dead, the central character with a wife who will surely leave him, and a value system that has been pursued to the detriment of moral well-being. When interviewer William Bibbiani in Crave says that the characters in the film are artists and that the artist’s purpose is to tell the truth, Farhadi replies: “Yes, but not for revenge. Sometimes you reveal truths because of your respect for truth. But other times you’re revealing truth because of your own personal gain. This is not moral conduct”. Bibbiani adds that they have been a victim of crime, and Farhadi adds, “Yes but the person that has committed the crime is to be punished, not their family. Plus, the person to mete out punishment is not a crime victim. It’s the law that’s supposed to mete out punishment.”

Partly what makes The Salesman an ethically complex film lies in the folds of thought that are required to work through the above position, ethical nuances often missing from a popular account of revenge. First there is the idea that truth isn’t just a fact it is also a function. Secondly revenge is an emotive personal response to a situation that demands dis-passion, a legal framework. When someone seeks the truth, do they want to find the truth or expose an individual, and this is how Farhadi sees Death of a Salesman, with Biff in Arthur Miller’s play determined to humiliate his father rather than reveal a truth about him. He wants to expose his father’s infidelity rather than reveal the truth about a situation. It is the ethical question of exposing or revealing that underpins the problem of truth so that it becomes not a plot point but a moral issue. When Emad finds out who happened to have attacked his wife, the truth is revealed, but Emad has to go further and insist that others must know as well. Here he goes beyond revealing the truth to exposing the man, and in consequence, ends up exposing himself too. His wife sees in Emad an aspect of his personality that we might assume will lead to her leaving him.

The second arena of complexity rests on whether one should take the law into one’s own hands. Emad quite literally does so at one moment when he slaps the old man, a shocking moment but one that divided the audience who saw the film in Iran. While many were no doubt horrified by the scene, Farhadi says “a couple – man and wife – had gone to see this film and she told me that when the man slapped the older man her husband was very happy and said “Bravo.” And what she told me was, “This gave me a new understanding of my husband.”” (Crave) Now in a film whose focus rests on revenge, such a gesture would demand the bravo, and the action would likely be rather more than a slap. Indeed maybe the wife and the husband have seen such films on bootleg DVDs and the wife been less shocked by the husband’s response. We can best explain this perhaps by saying that such a revenge thriller would not create the ethical space that would divide one viewer from the other and this would rest partly on the assumption that the law can be taken into one’s own hands. There is of course irony here that Hollywood would see itself as part of a very advanced democracy occasionally inclined to suggest regime change in Iran to bring the Iranians into the 21st century, but when we look at the films produced by each nation, it is often the American cinema that indicates lawlessness and violence, not Iranian film.

Now Farhadi has couched the different responses available to the viewer in The Salesman as a productive, aesthetic ambiguity, saying “this is present in all my films. Although I don’t categorize or divide, what I try to do is [create an environment] for there to be differences of opinion among my audience. This is true also of A Separation. Many of the viewers were on the side of the man in the story and said he’s right to care for his father and that’s what matters most, and many other viewers gave the right to the wife and said she’s right to be concerned about her child, her daughter, and if we were in her place we also would be concerned about our child’s future.” Yet in The Salesman even if the director creates the space for opposing responses, we would be inclined to believe that the ‘proper’ response to the slap is one of shock and not triumph, just as when a villain is killed in a mainstream thriller, the expected response is triumph over shock. Yet Farhadi is right to indicate there is more ambiguity in his films than in those of many others. However, this doesn’t rest on ambiguity as available interpretations; more on the acceptance that certain readings are unavailable. By contrast, in a scene from James Cameron’s True Lies, Arnold Schwarzenegger listens to Bill Paxton’s used car salesman telling him about his seduction techniques, unbeknownst to Paxton that the woman he fancies is Schwarzenegger’s wife. As they test drive a red convertible Schwarzenegger imagines punching him in the face and the film offers it in vivid detail before making clear it is just a fantasy. This scene is not untypical of a Hollywood movie that creates fantasy within reality but no ambiguity as a consequence. The action is equivocal (when he punches him we assume it is real until a second later when we realise it isn’t), but there is no ambiguity in the image: there is no meaning within it that can be taken more than one way. The slap in The Salesman is unequivocal but our responses can be equivocal as the director doesn’t so much say we can take it one way or another, but the question is how do we take it. For example, imagine a scene where we see someone walking along the road and robbing an old lady. We later find out that the robber did so to provide food for his children. We find out that the woman was wealthy, we see that he did no harm to her body, and that he later apologised. The action remains wrong, but the mitigating circumstances do not make the individual committing the wrongdoing a terrible person. This is the sort of ambiguity many fine, often realist filmmakers search out. What Cameron offers is the opposite. It starts with the notion of odious character and then shows the character odious through his actions, but the actions merely serve the a priori point.

In the scene with Emad it doesn’t confirm character but instead counters our perception of it. We know that the slap is both out of character (otherwise his wife wouldn’t be so shocked), but a revelation of character at the same time. Anyone who insists that Emad is undeniably right in slapping the old man would be watching a film that Farhadi hasn’t made, but that Farhadi has generated space for this possibility indicates the subtlety of his aesthetic: his ability to convey an aspect of ‘real-life’ situations in a cinematic context. This is what is so often missing from mainstream film and why it is usually devoid of an ethical context. The scene in True Lies makes a moral point that Paxton is a hopeless sleazeball who needs to be bullied and beaten into submission to even begin to change his ways (as we will see later in the film), but no ethics is extracted. Farhadi’s ambiguous cinema doesn’t allow all responses to be equal, but he does create a high degree of variables within the scene. We know that Emad is right to be angry but he isn’t right in the way he deals with it. While mainstream film will usually allow for the appropriate welding of character and situation, Farhadi creates a division. It isn’t that we can respond to the scene any way we like, yet there will be space for someone to say that the husband is right to slap the old man because of what he has done, but we should look further into the scene and see that the action itself is wrong. This allows the moment to be properly ethical and not simply righteously moral. What the film has shown us is a complex set of consequences. A couple take an apartment from a friend after their own falls apart and find their lives falling apart too after someone attacks the wife. Yet this attack is both a question of mistaken identity, and the actions of an old man looking for sexual solace, who turns out to be weak rather than vicious and yet who the husband humiliates, demoralises and bullies. Will the wife stay with such a man who can treat someone so badly? The question is thrown back on the viewer: would we? If we feel the wife in a Gibson or Schwarzenegger revenge movie decided to leave after their husband’s violent actions this would be going against the grain of the film’s meaning: it would be a personal ethical choice that would go against the diegetic intention. This doesn’t mean Hollywood can’t create the ethical space The Salesman occupies (think of the ending to A History of Violence), just that the Hollywood film is usually a medium of morality over ethics.


In Christian Mungui’s Graduation, the ethical conundrum rests on the central character’s daughter. The father is a surgeon who has always played it straight and tried to make life work in post-Communist Romania. But he wants something more for his daughter after she is attacked shortly before a key exam. The father, Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), knows that if she doesn’t get good grades the opportunity she has to study psychology in London will be removed, and so he finds himself embroiled in the underhand as he asks for a huge favour, hoping someone can guarantee her a top grade. This isn’t the only area of his life where he is compromised. He has for a long time been sleeping with a younger woman who has a child of her own, and who wants him to leave his wife and we watch as the film unravels on two fronts. We might even find ourselves wondering how they interconnect, at least in Aldea’s mind. Aldea may see his affair as one of the few pleasures in his life after sacrificing all to job and country, but others might see that the choices he has been making in his personal life become extended into his professional and social existence when he so desperately wants to help his daughter. Of course he wants the best for her, and knows that she won’t easily pass a key exam the day after an attempted rape, but he also seems to have lost the plot as the film goes in search of its ethical narrative. In other words he now seems to believe that pragmatics trump values: that what matters isn’t honesty but opportunity. Just as Aldea has sacrificed the former to the latter with an affair, so he expects his daughter to do likewise by getting into London with a little help from his friends.

Partly what makes the film an ethical outing and distinguishes it from the moral cinema of the rise and fall narrative evident in fine films (Scarface, Boogie Nights, Good Fellas) is less the pleasure in making it to the top (all the better to point up the vertigo of the fall) than the displeasure involved in knowing one’s life is a constant corruption of principles. There is little pleasure to be had here for Aldea. There is more conflict than pleasure in the affair even if he obviously desires his lover’s flesh; he wishes success for his daughter partly because his own career has been thwarted, and it doesn’t look like leaving his wife will resolve very much except bring even more guilt into his newer relationship. Reviewing the film in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw says “his wife is clearly suffering from a depression which appears to be undiagnosed and untreated, despite Dr Aldea’s medical background. The opening sequence indicates that she is almost bedridden.” The affair might be justified in Aldea’s head if he can’t motivate his wife to get up in the morning, and thus spends his afternoons shacking up with his lover, but leaving her altogether would be unlikely to increase his peace of mind. He looks like he can just about manage to practise denial as he tries to be there for two women, but by the leaving one for another will that precarious moral balancing act lead to a tumble?

Partly what makes this type of ethical cinema distinct from its Hollywood equivalent is that the rise and fall narrative is adrenalised and decisions aren’t really made; impulses are activated. It is not surprising that the three films we mentioned focus on characters who snort lots of coke: a drug of confidence that doesn’t leave much room for self-doubt, it means the characters act with the certitude of the elect – which gives the films a great sense of pace but little room for ethical manoeuvring. This isn’t to damn them; it is to indicate that a very different problematic is being worked through: none of them pass for ethical cinema as we are couching it here. If the American films give us character who throw themselves intro situations, an ethical cinema creates an interval between deed and action that leaves us musing over the character’s doubts as the film provides us with plenty doubts too. When in Good Fellas Henry Hill promptly beats up a neighbour for coming on heavy to his girlfriend there is no doubt in Henry’s mind that what he is doing is right; his girlfriend might wonder who she is getting involved with, but the point is that Henry goes from righteous anger to active deed. The space in between will have little to do with ethical reasoning; more with the mode of attack. It will have to be a job well done. An ethically inclined cinema doesn’t play up the viewer’s buzz, but slows everything down enough for us to fret over the character’s decision making. Now Christian Mungui says “What I like to do in cinema is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don’t come with an interpretation. They just happen. All decisions that we make are the result of a lot of impulses which can be very murky and unclear. It’s not like in mainstream cinema, when the childhood trauma explains everything. That’s very funny to me.” (No Film School) Here he seems to be echoing Farhadi’s comments that we didn’t entirely agree with, and also suggesting a Hollywood approach to film quite different from our own. We needn’t disagree with his latter point; he would just be thinking of different films, no more ethical than the ones we have discussed, just more inclined towards the therapeutic. We might think of Margaret, Manchester by the Sea and Magnolia as good American films that are interested in bringing the moral decisions in the present out of the sins evident in the past. We would also insist that like The Salesman, Graduation contains ambiguity yet it still works within the parameters of the ethically appropriate. We don’t assume that Aldea’s attempt to buy his daughter a good grade might be the right thing to do, we just accept it is understandable that a father wants what is best for his daughter, and thus identify with his predicament. But it is one thing to share someone’s dilemma, quite another to approve of their behaviour. If Mungui’s and Farhadi’s films are more ethically complex than most American movies, this isn’t because they allow for us to apply any value system we like upon the work. It is that the scenes often push and pull in different directions. In the example we have from True Lies there is no ambiguity in the scene no matter the fantasy/reality aspect to it. We know that Schwarzenegger is rightfully and righteously annoyed with the used car salesman, and we are expected to identify entirely with Schwarzenegger’s desire to belt him one. We might as ethical viewers distance ourselves from the scene, but diegetically the director wants us to be with the hero all the way. Much more ambiguously Scorsese in Good Fellas also wants us to be with Henry Hill. The neighbour has acted like a jerk in earlier scenes and deserves a comeuppance. Yet Scorsese is well aware that the violence meted out is disproportionate to the deed, and shows it in Bracco’s reaction. It might not quite be ambiguous as Farhadi and Mungui’s films are but it has its own complexity within a very forceful aesthetic. Farhadi and Mungui’s reticent form doesn’t possess this type of tension, but they instead create a more hesitant type of ambiguity. When Aldea goes to the police station, speaks on the phone to the deputy mayor, turns up at the home of another man involved in the situation, we notice someone trying to do right by his daughter while also playing fair to the ethical man he sees himself to be.

Now he is not entirely wrong in seeing himself as a fair man. We might wonder whether his wife’s possible depression led to the affair, and he doesn’t simply want his daughter to have an unfair advantage. He thinks she deserves a break after the misfortune of the incident. He wouldn’t be looking for help if he didn’t think she might need it. Generally her grades have been fine: he isn’t interested in his mediocre daughter doing well; she deserves her place in London and the incident has unfairly made that place precarious. His main problem is that he projects his own sense of failure on the possible failure of his daughter and consequently starts to act hubristically. It isn’t only that he wants his daughter to get into a London university, he also thinks that her boyfriend might not be the man for her, and finds various ways to undermine him. Yet it would be unfair to call him the villain of the piece if for no other reason than that he sees himself as the hero of the hour: the dad who will get his daughter into Uni despite the recent incident. Most villains do actually see themselves as villains of the piece: Bond mega-malefactors like Blofeld or Goldfinger, thugs like Begbie in Trainspotting or the interlopers in Funny Games, psychotics like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, or Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. They relish their bad deeds and milk the misery of others. But Aldea is neither hero not villain without being an anti-hero either (Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces; De Niro in Taxi Driver, Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon). An anti-hero is a sympathetic character who acts badly, someone who creates proper ambivalence in the audience as they feel on the character’s side but don’t quite approve of their actions. Yet does this not cover Aldea, and Emad too? Perhaps not. While many great seventies films want us to feel ambivalence towards character in relation to deed and the charisma of the individual (even if that charisma is only semi-diegetic and resides partly in the actors’ star quality), the ethical cinema we are looking at here does not expect an extra-diegetic aspect to impose itself on the character within the film. It is true that the actor playing Emad, Shahab Hosseini, is very well known in Iran, and will no doubt become better known internationally now after winning the best actor award at Cannes for his role in the film, but Iranian art cinema does not seem to generate a star system as Hollywood does. De Niro, Pacino and Nicholson may have come out of a seventies cinema that rejected numerous prior, studio-oriented conventions, but a star system was still in place and the audience would have been aware of them as burgeoning celebrities, as readily building their personae as playing a part. When Nicholson plays the piano on the back of a truck at the beginning of Five Easy Pieces or when De Niro speaks to himself in the mirror in Taxi Driver, this is stardom at work and characterisation at play. Thus even if the characters are selfish or psychotic, it is as if the star turn accommodates the problematic behaviour and gives it an ambivalent quality. In Hosseini and Adrian Titieni’s performances this isn’t the case. They are embedded within the narrative and the actor/role functions not as anti-heroic in the Hollywood sense, but as an ambivalent figure whose behaviour becomes increasingly troublesome as the film goes on, and who generates an identification with the problem. While both directors might be exaggerating the degree to which their films reflect life, nevertheless their relationship with actors suggests its presence more evidently than in brilliant American films that still acknowledge the star system.

Of course, the formal properties aren’t irrelevant to the ethical questions the films provoke, and both seem consistent in form with the national cinemas out of which they come. While The Salesman offers a realist aesthetic within the question of concern, Graduation does so through a realism that appears closer to dismay. If numerous Iranian films while distinctive in so many ways nevertheless suggest a concern for the predicaments characters find themselves in, whether it be Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, The White Balloon, Gabbeh or About Elly, Romanian cinema suggests dismay at a character’s behaviour, whether in Child’s Pose, Death of Mr Lazerescu, Beyond the Hills or Aurora. The aesthetic is usually more aggressive, forceful and yet non-plussed in the latter; recessive, sympathetic and tentative in the former. These are of course vast generalisations covering a wide range of films from two distinct cinematic movements and very different cultural contexts, but our aim is to do no more than find a way of talking about their form without reducing it to a question of technique, of long-takes, medium shots, the general absence of non-diegetic music. Ostensibly the film movements are similar in form but not quite in tone. The difficulty lies in explaining how, when central to conveying audio-visual significance rests in describing form, yet it can’t quite be contained by it: it is contained more by sensibility. When we think of Iranian film we can have in our mind very different shot choices: the crammed car sequence at the beginning of Close -Up, or the shots of the vehicle seen at a distance while we hear the conversation clearly as if we were in the Range Rover in Taste of Cherry. We can think of stories re-dramatized in A Moment of Innocence and The Apple, the former film exploring an incident in director Mohsen Makmhalbaf’s youth, the latter his daughter Samira making a film about a recent incident with a family refusing to let their children leave the house. To describe the shots in each film would be to arrive at ostensibly a quite different aesthetic, but we nevertheless have a notion of Iranian cinema that is distinct. Perhaps it is a cinema that listens and repeats, a filmmaking movement that suggests concentration and attention, of people insistently making points rather than actively making others conform to their will. Numerous scenes in Iranian film shows a character beseeching another, repeatedly asking for something or pursuing a dogged action. It could be the young man trying to get the more educated woman in Through the Olive Trees to marry him, the boy returning the book to his friend in Where is My Friend’s House?, or the boy in The Runner fulfilling every task with deliberate determination.

Some of the same claims could be made for Romanian cinema, but there is underlying many of the films a sense of menace, a malign force reflected in the camera’s long-take insistence in focusing attention on an event as if awaiting a catastrophe. A good example of this comes in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, with the central character waiting in the car while the abortionist goes off to talk to his mother. We watch her waiting, and off-screen we hear a ball hit the vehicle and the central characters jumps. Aurora creates a sense of impending tension before we find out why quite far into the film. Again we have it in Graduation, when a stone lands through a window at the beginning. Romanian directors often want to upset us, up-end a certain expectation of well-being. Iranian cinema is more inclined to pursue that sense of well-being, even if The Salesman contains some shocking moments. When Emad slaps the older man near the end of the film, this violates the world out of which it comes. When in Graduation the stone comes through the window it announces the atmosphere of menace that the film will incorporate. Romanian film is, if you like, a cinema of ethical anxiety, if we play on the term used to describe the late seventies Polish cinema of Zanussi, Kieslowski and Wajda. Janusz Kijowski, who coined the term “cinema of moral anxiety”, explained that moral anxiety is the foundation of cinema because “anxiety is conflict, conflict of interests […] In Poland at the end of the 70s, the term had another connotation. For the ruling party, it was iconoclastic because those in power feared all noble words. Morality was one of those things that didn’t function without a socialist adjective glued to it. They were threatened by references to the decalogue, to principles, un-systematic values that weren’t endorsed by the communist party.” (A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Cinema) In Post-Ceaucescu Romania the dictatorship has gone but the combination of internalising corrupt past values with the need to get on in a now capitalist society has created a subtly different form of corrosion.

This corrosiveness often appears in the exchanges, as characters communicate with a hint of wary and even malevolent sub-text; no actor more adept at its presentation than Vlad Ivanov, the police chief here, the abortionist in 4 Months… and the senior officer in Police, Adjective. When Peter Bradshaw, reviewing Police, Adjective talked of a “bizarrely over-extended scene” between Ivanov and his subordinate, it is a claim that could be made about numerous New Romanian films. Romanian cinema rarely works on the basis of a scene being a unit of information, promptly conveyed. It is instead a moral malaise as ethical molasses, extended and expanded to allow for the maximum amount of corruption and compromise to become evident. Graduation shows in scene after scene corrupted individuals as Aldea finds himself more and more deeply mired. Some of them do not seem terrible people, but they have become part of the texture of corruption that the long-take can exemplify as it holds the scene to wring out of it the necessary ethical residue. It also allows for ambiguities that the film might never quite resolve. In the early single-take shot just after the window has been broken, the father and daughter are moving round the flat and talking to the mother through the closed bedroom door. She isn’t up yet, suffering from a headache, but in time we might wonder if the headache is her husband’s affair, which could have led to what looks like a woman who is suffering from long-term heartache rather than a headache. Did her despairing state lead to the affair or was the affair the cause of it? By the end of the film the stone throwing incident will remain unresolved but not obscure: it is surely Aldea’s lover’s son who is responsible. The cause of Aldea’s wife’s unhappiness remains more mysterious still. It is the difference between a fact that is unknown and a condition that might not have a cause. We know someone broke the window but we don’t know whether any thing caused the mother’s depression. We might have proposed that the ethical cinema we are examining has consequences, but part of the ethical complexity at work is that we cannot always know quite what the causes and consequences are.


Harmonium is the most melodramatic and perhaps most conventionally plotted of the three films we are choosing to discuss. Directed by Koji Fukada (Goodbye, Summer), the film focuses on a couple and their daughter when an old friend of the husband turns up. The husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) rather hastily allows him to live with them, and the wife’s initial distrust turns in time to desire. Yet if this is the guilty couple caught in passion, then as the story unravels we discover that there was reason why the husband was so keen for Yasaka (Tadanabu Asano) to stay: the hubbie owes him for a cold killing years earlier. They were both gangsters involved in a hit, but Yasaka ended up in jail for the crime while Toshio was a free man moving towards the domestic life he now has. It is a while before we become aware of the debt he owes Yasaka, and while in the initial scenes as he moves in on the wife we might see a disloyal creep, afterwards Yasaka retains the creepiness but at least has a justification for his behaviour. Why shouldn’t he have access to the wife: Toshio has been with her for a decade while Yasaka languished in a prison cell for a crime he committed, but not alone?

The ethical dimension to the film rests again on the causation of culpability, with the film interested less in how Toshio might rid Yasaka from his life in a Cape Fear melodramatic turn that gets very violent. It instead creates a further twist in the story that adds to the guilt. Akie is clearly attracted but also resistant, and when she refuses Yasaka’s advances in an elliptical moment he then harms the daughter, whose head injuries lead to permanent and severe disability. Yasaka flees the scene. This leads to immense guilt on Akia’s part as she compulsively washes her hands in that most symbolic gesture of guilt, and Toshio focuses on the family business. Into this environment comes a young man who turns out to be Yasaka’s son and we wait to see what Toshio will do. He thinks at the very least the boy will be able to tell him more about Yasaka’s whereabouts.

Though the film piles up the melodrama on the page, Fukada doesn’t quite allow it to manifest itself in the form. Like Goodbye Summer, the film has a tranquil, even gentle pace that never lets the story build any more dramatically than its theme requires. It might come across as too plotted for the pace of the film, but one must assume this is because Fukada needs enough plot to explore the full permutations of guilt and responsibility. There are twists here, but maybe we can distinguish between the plot twist that generates screen time as obstacle and the twist that turns the ethical screw. When in True Lies the wife gets interested in the used car salesman thinking he is an international spy over her workaholic husband who claims to be busy all the time working as a computer salesman, as cover for his spy work, we know we are in the realm of plot mechanics. There is no ethos underlying the twist, while here Fukada is interested in what will happen ethically to the characters in the wake of events rather than in anticipation of them. In True Lies the film asks us to look forward to seeing Paxman humiliated by Schwarzenegger. There is no complicated issue here between the three characters, only a ‘loser’ who needs to be reminded of what a winner looks like. The plot is there to tickle us not trouble us, to generate action over ethos, audience gratification over audience enquiry. It is like a debased form of narrative men as the literary theorist Tzvitan Todorov offers it. Addressing a remark by Henry James about the importance of character over narrative, Todorov says: “it is difficult to ignore a whole tendency in literature, in which the actions are not there to “illustrate” character but in which, on the contrary, the characters are subservient to the action…this tendency, of which The Odyssey, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights and The Saragossa Manuscript are among the most famous examples, can be considered a limit-case of literary a-psychologism.” True Lies produces narrative men without the mythic and moral underpinnings of the great texts Todorov mentions, but what of ethical men? In The Salesman, Graduation and Harmonium the films create varying degrees of complexity in the characters, but they serve narrative ends as ethical enquiry. A character like Toshio remains vague to us except for the specifics of his ethical weakness and the consequences that come out of it. Yasaka is an evil man but Toshio is a weak one and perhaps this is where ethics is most pronounced, since evil gives far less space to the ethical than the weak. Think of many a horror or thriller where the main villain is evil but the secondary villain is simply not strong enough to resist the demands of the former one. A very average recent example, the Australian horror thriller Killing Ground presents a series of moments where Aaron Pederson has the conviction of his evil intentions while his sidekick looks queasy when asked if he wants to rape the two women again, and seems reluctant to shoot the husband in the head in a game of William Tell. The film allows for momentary ethical concern in the face of evil before Aaron Glennane’s weaknesses get the better of him and he becomes another murderer.

Yet in the films we have been discussing the ethical isn’t momentary; it is permeating the very fabric of the film’s aesthetic – partly why the murder that happened years before in Harmonium remains outside the diegesis (it remains an event only spoken of), and the incident between Yasaka and the daughter happens off-screen. The action really doesn’t matter very much as drama; it matters as consequence. Thus many years earlier a man agrees to murder another man with his colleague; the colleague takes responsibility for the deed, gets imprisoned for a decade, wants the life he has missed out on and seduces the wife, who rejects him, and so takes it out on the daughter and so on. If Toshio hadn’t been so weak he wouldn’t have joined the gang, committed the crime, let Yasaka take the rap, allow Yasaka into the family home etc. Everything stems from Toshio’s weakness and subsequently he is filmed much less menacingly than Yasaka, who looms over certain shots as if ready to commit an evil deed. Toshio is simply incapable of possessing the moral strength to do good ones. Harmonium is a much deeper ethical enquiry of course than a film like Killing Ground partly because it isn’t interested in dramatising for audience gratification, but narrativising for ethical purpose. All those scenes of the evil and the weak with the former cajoling the latter into bad deeds gets eschewed here because the action is a secondary issue, just as narrative is secondary to character in James’s work.


To conclude we can see that Harmonium is the most ethically conventional of the three films as it relies more than the others on the thriller dimensions of a sin from the past, a gangster background, and the hint of adultery in the noir mold. It also appears more contrived: not only does the villain arrive at the friend’s house; years afterwards the villain’s son does also. That we can use the term villain with some confidence also indicates a degree of predictability. We have no such villain in The Salesman and Graduate: we have weak men but no evil ones. It makes sense that the play within the film in the former is Death of a Salesman, a play about a very weak man indeed. It makes sense too that there is nothing bold in Aldea’s adultery in Salesman: it is the affair of a man who finds in it less the adulation of someone else’s eyes upon him, than the quiet judgement of a woman trapped by falling for a man too weak to leave his wife. It would seem the first failure of conviction that becomes an ethical chasm when he feels he has to help his daughter after the attack. In Ethics, the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza says “an emotion can neither be hindered or removed save by a contrary emotion and one stronger in checking emotion.” Perhaps in evil there is no capacity for a stronger emotion, even if Spinoza also says “if men were born free they would form no conception of good and evil as long as they were free.” Yet from our point of view, cinematically, evil is not an ethical question, and it is one reason why many films adopt the notion of evil as an a priori character trait: as a way of generating outright villainy. The baddie might justify their actions through a terrible childhood, a failed marriage or a need for money, but the motive floats on the surface of the character’s actions rather than a justifiable excuse for their behaviour. Yet the films we have discussed, and especially The Salesman and Graduation, are not looking for such excuses but instead search out the subtlety of consequences. “Not just in this film, in any film, the character changes when you put them in a crisis situation” Farhadi says, adding, “in normal life people look like each other. When a crisis happens, then the differences come out, and we see the different sides of those characters.” ( Mungui believes, “What I like to do in cinema is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don’t come with an interpretation. They just happen.” (No Film School) Fakada reckons “For all the actors that I work with, what I first ask them to do is never to try to explain the character or the emotion that they’re feeling at any given moment, and not to work backward from who they are or what is required in that scene.” He adds “That’s because in real life, as now for example, I’m sitting next to you, and I’m talking to you, but I don’t say something to you based on my “characteristics”—at all. It’s about communicating, it’s about interacting with each other.” (Film Comment) We might not agree with everything the three filmmakers say (often a hint of a crisis can reveal character much more individually than a cataclysm) but these are nevertheless the comments of filmmakers searching out the ethical ambiguity of our lives rather than the overly malevolent behaviour that hyperbolises action and eschews the intricacies of the ethical. It is to the latter that this article has hopefully attended.

©Tony McKibbin