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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Manuscripts Don't Burn
Manuscripts Don't Burn
Kino // Unrated // November 25, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted December 15, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Manuscripts Don't Burn is like the more realistic and therefore more pessimistic thematic cousin to Jon Stewart's Rosewater. Both films depict the Iranian government intimidating and torturing their intellectuals in order to block any dissemination of thoughts that might be viewed as anti-establishment.

As opposed to Stewart, who ends his film with a hopeful message, Mohammad Rasoulof, who wrote and directed Manuscripts Don't Burn as a big f-you to the Iranian government after being imprisoned for six years for "Subversive filmmaking activities", offers a technically simple final shot that's also profoundly unsettling considering the utterly terrifying paranoia the previous two hours inflicts on the audience.

Mired by predictable technical issues that afflict most first-time directors, Rosewater was more of an admirable effort than a genuine cinematic achievement. What it did absolutely right was to use Stewart's pedigree to bring the many gross injustices of the Iranian government to a wider Western audience.

It's too bad that Manuscripts Don't Burn will not reach anywhere near Rosewater's viewership because aside from being an astoundingly daring and delightfully incendiary middle finger to the Iranian establishment, it's a meticulously constructed and expertly paced political thriller that reminded me of Costa-Gavras' 1960s heyday.

Basing his screenplay on a real attempted murder case from 1995, Rasoulof shows admirable restraint as he settles on a slow burn dry procedural style instead of a heated political melodrama that might have simply ended up preaching to the choir in ear-gratingly didactic fashion.

The film's deliberate slow pace and emotional detachment from the subject matter pays off in spades since the gross abuse of authority showcased by those in power, as well as the tragic circumstances of intellectuals who dared to stand against the injustices of their government speak volumes for themselves without any overtly stylized and dramatized intervention of a filmmaker on a possible ego trip.

The screenplay intercuts between two writers desperate to publish a book that will expose the attempted murder of a bus full of intellectuals and the two goons hired by the secret service to dispose of them. It would have been easy for Rasoulof to focus entirely on the writers' dilemma and depict the killers as single-dimensional villains hell bent on destroying the opposition by any means necessary.

However, by giving motivations to the goons that goes beyond a simple blind loyalty to the government (One of the them takes the job in order to pay for his son's life-saving operation), Rasoulof paints an even more tragic picture where the actions of almost every piece in the game are taken more out of desperation and self-preservation in an unforgiving and cold world rather than moral grandstanding via nationalist fervor.

The film's slow pace, full of long, dialog-free scenes of characters filling their free time in between the various killings and torture sessions allows the audience to fully realize that these people have more than enough time to think on their actions. The most chilling of these scenes is a long, single shot sequence showing one of the goons casually preparing dinner and watching a soccer match on TV while waiting for the poison he forcibly injected into one of his victims to kill him.

The DVD:

Video:

Manuscripts Don't Burn sports one of the most impressive standard definition transfers I've seen in a while. First of all, the film's digital cinematography is gorgeous. If you ever wondered what Michael Mann's distinct digital filmmaking style drowning in cold blues and grays would look like in an Iranian political thriller, you've come to the right place. The transfer itself is devoid of any obvious video noise and is the best option until hopefully a Blu-Ray is released.

Audio:

There are two tracks that are offered on this DVD, both in Dolby Digital: 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo. The film's use of non-diagetic music is very scarce and as mentioned above, there are lots of long, dialogue-free scenes that rely on atmosphere. That's where the surround transfer comes in handy as the ambient sounds pull the audience into the film's cold and unforgiving world. Both audio presentations contain clear dialogue and sound.

Extras:

We only get a Trailer. Considering the entire cast and crew sans Rasoulof didn't want to be credited because of the film's incendiary nature, it's not surprising that a making-of documentary is not included.

Final Thoughts:

Another film that came to mind while watching Manuscripts Don't Burn was art house darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan's misguided and pretentious police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Both films use the slow burn approach to deliver a meticulously paced crime story. However, aside from Ceylan's political cowardice (His films have to show every authority figure without a single moral flaw for some reason) Rasoulof makes sure to create genuine inner conflict for his characters before he indulges in long, dialogue-free scenes, which allows the audience to fill in the moral blanks. Considering my home country Turkey's decline in free speech over the years, we need more directors like Rasoulof and less like Ceylan.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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