(Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)
Learning from the Past
The idea of categorizing film into national cinemas seems risky and more than a little controversial. Though I may be incorrect, it strikes me as a remarkably American exercise in neatly defining and generalizing non-American films (I can’t stand the pejoratives “foreign films” or “world cinema”). How do we define these national cinemas? France: avant-garde. Early Germany: expressionistic. South Korea: juggling humor and terror. Russia: challenging and glacial. Italy: neorealism. Africa (yes, you read that correctly – in America we tend to see the entirety of a continent as one nation and people): nonexistent. But, here’s where it begins to break down. How do we define an American cinema? By our westerns? Our blockbusters? Our sentimental melodramas? Our gangster sagas?
If American movies cannot be so easily categorized, shouldn’t it stand to reason that perhaps our generalizations with regards to other national cinemas are also impossibly limiting? Take for example recent French cinema. The last couple of decades have been marked by the so-called New French Extremity – a movement of soulless, chilling horror that depicts a despondent portrayal of humanity. And yet, for every vomit-inducing Irreversible or punishing Amour, there’s an overly saccharine Amélie or a ridiculously clichéd The Intouchables. All four are French films in that each of their respective filmmakers shot their projects in France with French-speaking actors and the financing of French production companies. So, are all of them indicative of a supposed French cinema?
All of this may seem like an unnecessary prelude to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece A Moment of Innocence, yet the film is best understood within this discussion. Makhmalbaf is an Iranian filmmaker, possibly the most well known next to international titans Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. He gained recognition during the same era of Kiarostami’s most celebrated period – even working together on the epochal Close-Up – and the two of them are likely the most successful directors of the supposed Iranian New Wave. And, if we were to reduce an entire nation’s filmic output to one defining adjective, Iran’s would undoubtedly be self-reflexive. Not since early Godard have filmmakers so jarringly drawn their viewers’ attention to the fact that they are simply watching a movie.
Here, then, is where the notion of national cinemas can be somewhat helpful, providing context to understand the cultural attitudes and conditions in which individual filmmakers work rather than suggesting some all-encompassing attribute. It is true that many Iranian films draw from this self-reflexivity, and it’s also probably true that many filmmakers are influenced by each other. It’s difficult to imagine films like Panahi’s The Mirror or Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence would exist without Close-Up. Of course, Kiarostami is the master of meta (not much else compares to his nineties output that saw Close-Up, Life, and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us collectively challenge the very nature of narrative cinema itself), but that certainly doesn’t mean his distinct body of work is the only Iranian oeuvre worth exploring.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s own career has been wildly varied, both in style and quality. It’s no stretch to claim A Moment of Innocence as his greatest work – it’s also the director’s personal favorite – and it’s also remarkably easy to approach on its own terms. Makhmalbaf’s film is no sub-Kiarostami afterthought. In fact, Innocence builds on Kiarostami’s token self-referential aesthetic by adding a wholly welcome, poignant personal touch. The film depicts the fictionalized recreation of a true event in Makhmalbaf’s own life as a teenager. In the late-seventies prior to the Revolution, Makhmalbaf, then a 17-year-old revolutionary, stabbed a police officer in attempts to steal his gun as his own contribution to the anti-Shah rallies spreading across Iran. But, rather than simply recount history through narrative fiction, Makhmalbaf explores his own past, changes in Iranian society, the repercussions of his violent actions, and the inherent farce of reenactment by instead making a film about the making of a film à la William Greaves’ groundbreaking Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
The conception of Innocence, then, is not unlike that of Close-Up. Makhmalbaf’s victim tracked him down nearly twenty years later having turned in his badge following that fateful day and now looking for a part in a movie. Little did this former police officer realize, however, that Makhmalbaf’s idea would be to turn their story into that very movie. Thus, Innocence begins with the former officer (Mirhadi Tayebi) searching for Makhmalbaf, and then transitions into an initially befuddling sequence where both men choose actors to play their younger selves for the ensuing project. The officer and the director, then, coach their former selves on what happened on that day and what both of them felt so many years ago as Makhmalbaf captures these faux behind-the-scenes moments cleverly sectioned off by clapboard intertitles.
Makhmalbaf uses this convoluted meta-structure to force viewer participation – piecing together its fascinating chronology and distinguishing which parts belong to the dramatization or the “behind-the-scenes” portion as subjects break in and out of character within the same sequence is half the fun – and offer compelling shifts in perspective depending on the angle of the camera. He brilliantly chooses film as a medium to reckon with his past by lending a voice to his former victim, giving a reason for why he did what he did without justifying it, and finally by allowing these actors who play younger versions of those involved to change the outcome of his heinous crime. This last point is crucial and elevates Makhmalbaf’s film from playful intrigue to masterpiece. After exposing old wounds and outdated ideologies as Makhmalbaf and the police officer coach their younger selves for most of the film’s duration, in its final moments the camera and crew disappear, and Makhmalbaf gives a glimpse of that fateful day as the young director (Ali Bakhsi) and the young officer (Ammar Tafti) recreate that historic moment of violence in front of the camera.
But, here, the film takes a wholly unexpected turn culminating in one of the finest freeze-frame finales this side of The 400 Blows. Instead of the scripted clash between these two young men, both impulsively offer the other an object of peace – the officer handing the young Makhmalbaf a potted flower (intended for Makhmalbaf’s cousin and accomplice) and the revolutionary handing his victim some bread originally used to conceal his knife. Makhmalbaf allows his actors to change history. Of course, the past cannot be altered, but A Moment of Innocence – in its remarkable denouement – poignantly suggests that we can use the past to affect the future. Certainly, Makhmalbaf has learned that violence is never the best solution to any conflict, and this deeply personal film of his finds him in a position of vulnerability with regards to his damaged past but offers hope for his and the next generation’s future.