Judge Joe Armenio urges all you DVD-philes to spend some time with Iranian film.
"Do you remember your youth?"
One of the more interesting developments in world cinema in the 1980s and 1990s was the emergence of an Iranian New Wave. A country run by fundamentalist dictators and just emerging from a devastating decade-long war would not seem like an especially likely candidate for artistic renaissance, but in the last 20 years, Iran has produced not one but two world-class directors: Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Jafar Panahi, director of The Circle and Crimson Gold, is not much younger than Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, but has emerged more recently as a major talent). As Phillip Lopate has pointed out, the great achievement of Iranian cinema is its seamless combination of the two most important (and seemingly incompatible) theoretical innovations of post-1945 film: neorealism, with its stress on non-professional actors and real locations, and the self-reflexive use of cinema itself as a subject which was pioneered by the French New Wave (Godard in particular).
Makhmalbaf's 1996 film A Moment of Innocence needs to be placed in the context of what Godfrey Cheshire, in his booklet essay here, describes as the "great cycle of self-reflexive Iranian cinema." The most famous films in that cycle are Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), which deals with the trial of a man who pretended to be Makhmalbaf, and his Taste of Cherry (1997), in which an earnest exploration of life and death is revealed as a film-within-a-film at the last possible moment. In these masterpieces, which hide beneath their placid surfaces enormous intellectual and emotional complexity, the awareness of film as film is not a coy gimmick but a necessary exploration of the questions at the heart of cinema: What does it mean to try and tell the truth through film? Is it even possible? How do films affect their audiences?
Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence, while not as well known as those two Kiarostami films, is of their same stature, a short (75 minutes), seemingly unassuming film which is actually deeply ambitious, about nothing less than the passage of time and the meaning of cinema. Its plot emerges from the director's own life; in 1974, when Makhmalbaf was 17, he was an anti-Shah extremist who stabbed and wounded a policeman, and was sent to jail for five years under horrible conditions before being released with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
A Moment of Innocence begins with the policeman (Mirhadi Tayebi) approaching Makhmalbaf (playing himself) for work as an actor. Makhmalbaf decides to make a film about the incident and casts a young man (Ali Bakhsi) to play the younger version of himself. There is an amusing scene in which Tayebi threatens to walk off the set when his own personal choice to play his role is rejected in favor of a less handsome boy (Ammar Tafti); ultimately, however, he is placated and agrees to train the young actor. A scene in a tailor's shop, in which Tayebi attempts to get a uniform made for Tafti, turns into an impromptu ode to the power of the cinema (Hollywood in particular), as the old tailor delivers a speech about Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.
The bulk of the film consists of scenes in which Makhmalbaf and Tayebi coach the actors portraying them; as the men tell their stories and guide their proteges, the different ways in which they understand the incident emerge. Makhmalbaf used his young cousin (played in the film-within-a-film Maryam Mohamadamini) as a decoy, enlisting her to approach the policeman and ask questions as a distraction. It soon becomes wrenchingly clear that the policeman has spent the last 20 years pining for this girl, convinced that she was also in love with him and that only the unfortunate timing of the attack prevented him from getting to know her. His desire to become an actor is linked to his desire to make a success of himself so that she will see him and contact him. Makhmalbaf, it turns out, was also in love with his cousin, but his prison term put an end to any possibility of marriage, a situation which has its parallels in the relationship of his young protégé to Mohamadamini. Here, sketched out quickly in a couple of scenes, is not only a powerful emotional situation but an examination of complexly linked ideas: the allure of the cinema (a medium based on images, the appearance of things) and the dangerous unreliability of appearances, the ways in which they can mislead, or only allude to a more complex truth.
Once these ideas have been sketched out in the "training scenes," the rest of the film focuses on the filming of the scene in which Makmalbaf stabs the policeman, who is distracted by the young woman, to whom he intends to give a flower. Makmalbaf shows us the same moment from different perspectives, culminating in an exhilarating freeze-frame which sums up perfectly both the emotional and intellectual content of the film and is, as Cheshire says, "one of cinema's most stirring and fervent expressions of pacifism."
Makhmalbaf's style throughout is rigorous and controlled; the camera is usually still, the takes long, maintaining a distance from the characters. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari captures a series of wintertime cityscapes that manage to be both chilly and lyrical, both refined and deeply emotional, much like the film's story.
New Yorker continues to be frustratingly inconsistent in its presentation of important films; some releases, like Robert Bresson's L'Argent, contain important commentaries and extras, while others, like the two Ousmane Sembene films recently released, have nothing at all. Extras would seem to be particularly important for these foreign art films which might remain impenetrable to even adventurous filmgoers who haven't been given the sort of contextual information which the best extras provide. I'm glad to have Cheshire's thoughtful booklet essay here, but New Yorker could have done more. The transfer, which is a non-anamorphic, letterboxed 1.78:1, is good, presenting Makhmalbaf and Kalari's images with an admirable clarity.
What is ultimately most impressive about this very impressive film is its profound humanism. Makhmalbaf has taken an extraordinarily painful event from his life, one which could have easily produced a self-pitying screed, and turned it into a complex, rigorous, and deeply compassionate work of art. The great Iranian filmmakers are always asking: How does one tell the truth through film? With A Moment of Innocence, Makhmalbaf has answered his own question, and anyone who loves the medium should be grateful to him for that.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Foreign Trailer
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