Dying Multiple Deaths

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about sin, violence, forgiveness and reconciliation for a book I’m starting to write on the portrayal of these themes in film. I’m also beginning a search for films to use in the book (suggestions are always welcome!). I just watched a 2005 Iranian film, Day Break, which has much to offer discussions of these topics as well as a host of other issues as well.

Based on true stories, Day Break tells the story of Mansour (Hosein Yari), a middle-aged man convicted of murdering his employer. Under Iranian/Islamic law, the death penalty must be ultimately handed down and enacted by the family of the victim(s). They also have the opportunity to extend forgiveness to the murderer, who will then serve out a state-mandated, lengthy jail sentence. Mansour has been scheduled for execution, but on the appointed day, the family fails to show up. Due to a death in the family, they are absent for the second scheduled execution. The film concludes with Mansour walking towards his third execution. You can find out what happens for yourself.

Directed by Hamid Rahmanian, the film is beautifully shot even in the dark despair of the prison. It is built, largely, around cuts between Mansour’s waiting in prison and memories of life before he made his fatal mistake, particularly scenes of his family life with his wife, Atifeh (Hoda Nasseh) and parents. Hosein Yari gives a fantastic performance in which he conveys just as much with his crumbling appearance as he does with his words.

It’s difficult to determine just where to begin a discussion of the film’s themes. An obvious starting point could be the relationship between Iranian and Islamic law, and their insistence on the death penalty as an appropriate form of punishment. That the role of executioner is placed on the victim’s family can be troubling, but it certainly puts the decision to execute in sharper perspective when you have to pull the lever yourself, so to speak. Also, allowing the family the opportunity to forgive their tormentor without foregoing punishment is something that would be welcome in our own experiences of “justice.”

I’m reading Serene JonesTrauma and Grace and Yari’s portrayal of Mansour shows all the signs of trauma induced by facing his impending annihilation…three times. But it is a traumatic experience that he has brought, to a great degree, on himself. The judge in the film rightly names Mansour’s crime as a sin, and it is one that lands him in a variety of prisons. At the same time, the victim’s family’s refusal to make a decision in the matter intensifies his imprisonment and soon forces us to see it as nothing less than a form of torture. As the film progresses and his execution is delayed, Mansour’s fellow prisoners begin to define their own experiences in light of his.

Mansour reveals his tenderness by giving his newborn daughter a pair of knit booties.

The cuts back and forth between Mansour’s imprisonment and scenes of his previous life reveal that his life (like all violators) is greater than one destructive act or a sum of them. Though most viewers will become sympathetic with Mansour’s condition, the notion that his victim’s family could be forced to forgive him or be held to some time frame for extending that gift is an impossibility. Yet the film seems to suggest that the refusal to forgive can be just as painful a violation as the act for which the tormenter needs to be forgiven. In an early scene in the film, Mansour’s second stalled execution, a fellow prisoner does make it to the gallows. However, at the last minute, his victim’s family opts to forgive him. The family breaks down in tears and the prisoner falls weeping at their feet. There is not reconciliation here, but it is a start. They forgive under one condition, that he signs over his house and property to an orphanage. As such, this contract between victim and violator begins to make right a wronged relationship and even serves the wider community that was also broken by that ruptured relationship.

Day Break reveals that forgiveness is hard work but absolutely necessary to break violent cycles. After all, what is the death penalty but a violent echo of the violent act that brought the perpetrator there. It also calls into question, quite powerfully, the appropriateness of said penalty while also giving attention to prison overcrowding and the limits of prison on individual and social reform. Day Break is a short, but effective, film that will, without a doubt, instigate fierce conversation after the credits roll.

Day Break (84 mins.) is unrated and is available on DVD.