Film in Film in The Mirror The …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Meanwhile, Iranian cinema
has become semi-big among the ever-fewer American cinephiles who still devote
serious attention to subtitled films, yet this, too, has entailed simplifications.
The greatest reduces an extraordinarily complex artistic and cultural phenomenon
to a rudimentary impression based on a handful of films of fairly recent vintage.
That’s understandable, perhaps, and forgivable until you encounter a review
like one I saw a few months back in the Post, in which the critic spewed
erroneous generalities about Iranian films in a breezy "as everyone knows"
tone that only made his comprehensive ignorance that much more comical.

The fact is, Iran has had
the world’s most vital and important national cinema of the 90s, and has
been essentially unrivaled in that since the three corners of China began their
slow decline circa mid-decade. Yet several factors have combined to distort
the West’s understanding of this unlikely renaissance. First, Western prejudices
and suspicions regarding Iran and Islam helped keep Iran’s postrevolutionary
films largely off the world’s radar until the mid-90s, nearly a decade
after that renaissance began. The result was that non-Iranians began seeing
new films without any knowledge of their artistic context or predecessors; most
U.S. critics still evince scant familiarity with the Iranian cinema’s complex,
amazing progress from 1985-’95.

Second, the films the West
did see usually arrived via the highly politicized and self-serving agency of
international festivals like Cannes, where the desire to create and maintain
"star" auteurs–especially one: Kiarostami–overrides any
impetus to present a general and balanced picture of Iran’s most significant
filmmaking. Third, American distributors gave audiences the chance to encounter
Iranian cinema only in a way that was belated, haphazard and inevitably skewed.
In part, this was due to the vagaries and difficulties of marketing foreign
films in the U.S., but it has left the often erroneous impression that the really
important Iranian films are the ones that somehow make it onto our screens.

There’s another obstacle
that deserves mention too. Even the most sophisticated, internationally attuned
filmgoers tend to expect movies to be obvious or transparent in how they present
themselves; the basic grammar of filmmaking, after all, was elaborated some
time ago. Yet the Iranian cinema’s strongest claim on greatness, it seems
to me, lies in the sense that it uses filmic vernacular in ways that are genuinely
its own–ways, however, that are also subtle enough to require more attentive,
thoughtful and idiomatic viewing than we’re now generally accustomed to
giving films.

All of this has a bearing
on the belated U.S. launch of one of the greatest Iranian films, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s
A Moment of Innocence (1996), which will play alongside the director’s
most recent film, The Silence (1998; see Armond White’s review),
at the Walter Reade Theater Nov. 10-25, then move downtown for a two-week solo
run at Cinema Village beginning Nov. 26.

A political and personal
statement of extraordinary force and resonance, A Moment of Innocence–Iranian
title: The Bread and the Vase–has its roots in an incident from
the filmmaker’s youth. Born and reared in Tehran’s poor southern district,
Makhmalbaf as a teenage Islamic fundamentalist helped form a militant anti-Shah
group. In 1974, when he was 17, he attacked a police station and stabbed a young
policeman. Shot and wounded in the incident, he was captured and imprisoned
under torture for the next four and a half years, until his release by the revolution.
(He subsequently became a polemical writer and broadcaster, and turned to filmmaking
in the early 80s.)

A Moment of Innocence
is, if you will, a radical reconsideration of the filmmaker’s own past
and, with it, Iran’s. For a project founded on such painful memories and
volatile political revisionism, though, the film’s most immediately striking
aspect is its tone of bemused comic lyricism. It begins with the policeman whom
Makhmalbaf stabbed years before (Mirhadi Tayebi) arriving in snowy Tehran looking
for work–in films. Finding his way to the director’s house, he encounters
six-year-old Hanna Makhmalbaf, who immediately deduces his purpose; the only
people who come to the door whom she doesn’t know, she says, are would-be

Makhmalbaf has a role for
the visitor, it turns out, though not the one he envisioned. The director is
planning to recreate for a film the incident when he stabbed the policeman,
and he proposes that each of them separately choose and prepare a young actor
to play himself in 1974. To play the "young Makhmalbaf" (as he’s
identified), Makhmalbaf chooses an intense young man (Ali Bakhshi) who says,
quite seriously, that he wants "to save mankind"–as Makhmalbaf
himself wanted to do at 17. For his younger self, the policeman at first
selects a handsome, camera-friendly young Tehrani, until Makhmalbaf (acting
offscreen through an assistant) imposes another young man (Ammar Tafti), who’s
much shorter than the policeman but has a provincial accent like his.

In mood halfway between
a documentary and a dream, Moment seems to glide across the glistening
snowscapes of Tehran, through its streets, alleyways and bazaars (the film is
gorgeously shot by the great cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari). Makhmalbaf and
his former enemy throughout the film remain apart, training and conversing with
their "younger selves," although as it turns out, all four are effectively
connected by someone else–a girl.

The policeman remembers
1974 this way: For a month before he was stabbed, a girl would approach him
every day at his guard’s post and ask the time or some other innocuous
question. Later he would hate Makhmalbaf for depriving him of the one girl who,
he felt sure, loved him. On the day of the attack he brought with him a flower
in a vase to give to her, as a way of declaring his love. But instead, stabbed
by a young man carrying a loaf of bread that hid a knife, he reached for his
gun rather than the vase, and shot the young Makhmalbaf. The policeman has recovered
physically but never suspected the truth: the girl he loved was Makhmalbaf’s
cousin, acting as his decoy.

With the young Makhmalbaf
in tow, the director goes to his cousin’s to ask if her daughter can play
her younger self, but she’s now a middle-class householder and wants no
part of his film. (We never see her or her daughter, incidentally; the film’s
use of offscreen characters anticipates the central device in Kiarostami’s
new The Wind Will Carry Us.) Before Makhmalbaf and his younger self go
off to enlist the young Makhmalbaf’s cousin (Marjam Mohamadamini) to play
the girl, he muses that his cousin used to want to save mankind–before
the revolution, and her own rise in social status.

The provocative implication
in that jibe is part of a subtle pattern, one that sometimes tends toward exquisite
drollery. When the policeman and his younger self go to get a Shah’s-era
police uniform made for the young man, the tailor they visit is initially shocked
at such an heretical request. But not only does he instantly relent when he’s
told it’s for a film, he also starts chattering away about his own favorite
stars and films: e.g., Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and The Vikings,
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. (Just as these vintage references
accurately reflect the fondness with which older Iranians recall Hollywood movies
of the 40s and 50s, they additionally suggest how many epochs in Iran’s
long history have been brought to cinematic life by American movies.)

As the film approaches its
climax, it returns to the scene of the crime(s). Three onscreen actors playing
three 1974 characters (the young Makhmalbaf, the young policeman and the girl),
who in turn imply three offscreen people (the present-day versions of the same
trio), are choreographed in an imaginary "dance of fate" in which
fate and history are abruptly, stunningly, reversed. Gun, vase, knife, bread:
these implements trade places, as it were, overthrowing violence in the name
of tenderness. I will not describe the film’s final freeze-frame except
to say that it’s easily one of the cinema’s most breathtaking statements
of pacifism.

Nor is that all it is. One
of the challenges of discussing Iranian films is that many of the best of them
have a surface simplicity and accessibility that are ultimately deceptive. A
Moment of Innocence
is a good example of that. It has what seems to be a
completely transparent purpose and method; even its putting filmmaking itself
within the frame and story will be familiar to those who’ve seen other
Iranian films do the same. Yet the movie, I think, is far more complex and multivalent
than it at first appears.

Realizing that no doubt
requires seeing it more than once or twice, and reflecting on the extent to
which our ways of reading films depend on standard Western modes of understanding
fiction and drama. To be sure, A Moment of Innocence is made in full
awareness of those modes, even the most modernistic; its echoes of Pirandello,
Ionesco, Nabokov, Borges, et al., are hardly accidental. But beneath these understandings
are others that underscore the predominance in Iranian art of other influences
and aims, especially philosophical argument and poetic allusiveness and symbolism.

One small example: The young
policeman places his vase-with-flower in a beam of sunlight. When he comes looking
for it later and wonders to a passerby that he can’t find it in the beam,
the man replies, in effect: look, dummy, the sun has surely shifted. This incident’s
transparent meaning is a sight gag worthy of Chaplin. But it can be plumbed
for at least three other levels of meaning. 1) Its image is a metaphor that’s
been famously used by Jalaluddin Rumi and other Persian mystics (the single
beam is the individual’s portion of God’s pervasive light; here we
also get a sample of the large Neoplatonic element in Iranian tradition). 2)
Further, Makhmalbaf gives that same metaphor a provocative political spin, since
it is unmistakably meant to read as a statement that times have changed since
the revolution. 3) In the broadest sense, the image also refers back to what
has been a dominant theme in Makhmalbaf’s work since about 1990, one that
has vast political and, for him, artistic and personal implications: the relativity
of truth.

To best understand this
film’s aims, one needs to examine it in the context of his career, especially
the two films preceding it. Its genesis, though, goes back farther than that.
According to what Makhmalbaf told me in 1997, the policeman he stabbed in ’74
approached him looking for work as an actor when he was directing The Cyclist
(1988); he got the idea for the film as a result of that meeting, but didn’t
act on it for several years.

In September of 1994, as
the first stage in making what was intended as A Moment of Innocence,
he put an open casting call in a Tehran newspaper, intending to use some of
those who turned up in the casting scenes of the film’s first 10 minutes.
Instead, thousands of people showed up, producing a near riot. Makhmalbaf turned
this incident and the subsequent casting sessions into the feature Salaam
(1995), which combines an hilarious, documentary look at Iranian
cinemania with a subtle political allegory deriding the "tyranny"
of the film director. The following spring he went to the highlands of central
Iran to make Gabbeh (1996). He subsequently shot and completed A Moment
of Innocence
over a three-month period in the winter of 1995-’96.

This sequence is important,
I think, because Salaam Cinema, Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence–in
addition to being, in my opinion, Makhmalbaf’s supreme achievements to
date–are so unified in their essential concerns as to comprise a de facto
trilogy equal to the Kiarostami films critics have dubbed the "Koker Trilogy"
(Where Is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On, Through
the Olive Trees
). As Makhmalbaf put it to me in 1996, the "essence"
of his work in the period that climaxes with these films is "that quote
from Rumi that truth is this mirror in the hand of God [that’s been] broken
into pieces and everyone picks up one piece and says I’ve got the whole
truth, but the whole truth is the mirror."

However: The mirror, in
Makhmalbaf’s and Iranian films generally, is the great metaphor for cinema
itself. Therefore: Any film or filmmaker who pretends to have the whole truth
is making the same mistake that repressive ideologues and religious orthodoxies
make. Thus Salaam, Gabbeh and Moment share an elaborate
program that aims to inscribe multiple viewpoints within each film while also
questioning the truth and, above all, the authority of each viewpoint,
especially that of the one nominally in control: the artist. Like all claims
on power, these films imply, the auteur’s must be rigorously examined and,
if need be, overthrown.

The self-reflexive motif
in postrevolutionary Iranian film begins with Kiarostami’s Close-Up
(1990), which, not coincidentally, also inaugurates the theme of questioning
the director’s public power (the film concerns the trial of a poor man
who was arrested for impersonating Makhmalbaf). Makhmalbaf’s films, though,
bring this idea to its most dazzling and forceful realization. The magisterial
Gabbeh disperses authorial authority by fragmenting the narrator’s
perspective into numerous, ever-shifting subperspectives. Salaam Cinema
makes an allegorical drama out of its shifting view of the director, who moreover
is effectively "doubled": we not only get the tyrannical "bad
guy" Makhmalbaf onscreen but the implicit "good guy" Makhmalbaf
behind the camera.

A Moment of Innocence
likewise deals in doubles and multiple perspectives that ask us to question
the relative truths it both presents and re-presents. But perhaps the film’s
subtlest level is the most personal, where the pattern noted above in Salaam
is reversed: here we get the good guy Makhmalbaf onscreen and the
implicit bad guy offscreen. How so? The key thing to realize is that the policeman–whose
point of view is subtly derided throughout–is played not by himself but
by an actor. Makhmalbaf says he judged the real policeman an incompetent performer.

In Tehran in 1997, I brought
up the real-life policeman to Makhmalbaf and–rather impertinently, I admit–asked
him, "Weren’t you stabbing him a second time in telling him he wasn’t
good enough to play himself?" He laughed uproariously at that, then turned
serious, thought for a moment and said: "The violence that is in our culture
is because of ideology and politics. I have ritually washed myself of politics
and ideology with art. Right now I am a product of myself and my conditions,
where when I was a 17-year-old boy I was a product of my conditions. This relative
perspective of mine, and my being kind and human, is not a product of my culture.
It is a product of the art that I have mastered."