Film in Film in The Mirror The ...

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    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 actors.

    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 Cinema (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 Cinema 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."