Manuscripts Don’t Burn, whose title is taken from the satirical Russian novel The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is almost more important as an artifact of its own existence than as a drama. Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof has received a jail sentence for “filming without a permit” (according to Wikipedia) but apparently has yet to serve it, and is also under a 20-year ban from making films.
Jafar Panâhi responded to a similar sentence by shooting a clandestine video called This Is Not a Film, and Rasoulof responds by secretly shooting a film in which none of the actors or crew receive credit. This is supposedly for their safety, though it can hardly be difficult to identify them. Several attended the premiere at Cannes.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn‘s narrative juxtaposes two sets of people. Some are writers who are constantly under surveillance and who plot to conceal copies of a memoir about an incident of 20 years earlier when a busload of writers were nearly murdered when the bus was steered off a cliff. The other characters are the tools of the state: the man in charge of the surveillance and his two working-stiff stooges, who plod about the business of torture and murder while fretting about their own problems. For at least one of them, the mental and spiritual fallout of his job is reinforced by the awareness that he’s just as disposable as his victims.
As with many Iranian films, Manuscripts Don’t Burn takes an unblinking, unhurried, observational pace as the camera allows its characters to live in the moment. They walk, they stand, they think, they drive, they look around, they slip a bag over someone’s head, they smoke a cigarette.
Viewers have a long time to figure out who the characters are and what is their relation to one another until the sinister implications come together. It’s suspense of a low-key, restless, clammy kind, designed to undermine your comfort, and book-ended with a circular return to the same mysterious scene whose mysteries aren’t really clarified.
It’s not a happy film, and it leaves one with a sense of frustration, claustrophobia, and bewilderment. In other words: it works.