Third feature film by Ali Abbasi, an Iranian filmmaker based in Europe since 2001, Nights of Mashhad is based on a series of murders that occurred in 2000 in the Iranian city of Mashhad (Mashhad) near the Afghan border. The filmmaker admits to having been influenced by a documentary by Maziar Bahari, which returned to this affair, two years after the events.

Several prostitutes had been murdered by a serial killer, who turned out to be a religious fanatic determined to purify the city and cleanse it of all moral corruption. Having become a sort of paradoxical hero for part of public opinion, he was nonetheless condemned to death and executed.

The film, shot in Jordan, far from the radars of Iranian censorship, first follows the investigation of Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Best Actress Prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival), a journalist determined to discover the identity of the culprit by taking insane risks. At the same time, the film focuses on the assassin, mason and father who, at night, travels the streets of Mashhad on a motorbike, pretends to be a customer and strangles his victim, once at home, before dropping off his body in a vacant lot.

This alternation of points of view, that of the investigator and that of the killer, is truly part of a desire to pull out all the stops, to use the narrative principles of various cinematographic genres, put here at the service of a look at a society experiencing its own contradictions.

Contradictions of a society

This superposition of gazes adds weight to an insistent way of dealing with violence. The atrocity of the murders and the vain and paltry resistance of the victims are exposed with often disturbing precision. Supported by the use of disturbing music, the filmmaker’s view is less denunciatory than complacently nihilistic. This alternation of bad enjoyment and compassion undoubtedly reflects the very complexity of the environment and the situation described.

The trial of the assassin – seen by part of public opinion as a vigilante to whom we should be grateful for having eliminated women of bad living – lays bare the contradictions of a gigantic metropolis, theater of all commerce and all corruption. Mashhad is the second city of Iran and also a holy city – there is the mausoleum of Imam Reza, who died as a martyr in 818.

This relationship between materialist modernity and spiritual archaism determines what links the requirements of a law, whose transgressions are mercilessly punished, and a mode of governance based on repression and sexual frustration. Murders would only be a form of violence that regularly explodes in the heart of a society of extremes, not pacified.