A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE
Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
With Makhmalbaf, Mirhadi Tayebi, Ali Bakshi and Ammar Tafti
Distributed by New Yorker Films
A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE is as ambitious as a small-scale, deeply personal film gets: an overtly autobiographical miniature that's far from being apolitical or merely private. Few directors in their 30s have made such a calm, melancholy elegy for the mistakes of one's youth. The angry tone and manic style of late 80s Makhmalbaf films like THE PEDDLER and THE CYCLIST now seem to belong to another filmmaker altogether. Together with GABBEH - also made in 1996, although MOMENT took 2 more years to find an American distributor- this film feels like a kiss-off to his "angry young man" period. Although I haven't yet seen his latest film, THE SILENCE (released simultaneously with MOMENT), Makhmalbaf was on one hell of a roll in 1995 (when he made the corrosive SALAAM CINEMA, a documentary about actors; auditions) and 1996. A hardcore auteurist friend has complained that he doesn't reach the high-water mark as consistently as his compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, but SALAAM CINEMA, GABBEH & MOMENT rank among the treasures of 90s world cinema, and I'm grateful to New Yorker Films for finally giving Americans a chance to catch up with the latter outside one-off festival screenings.
A quasi-documentary, A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE depicts the making of a film in which Makhmalf, who plays himself, re-creates a real-life incident in which he, at age 17, stabbed a cop (Tayebi) in protest against the Shah, landing himself several years in jail. Twenty years later, the cop makes his way to Makhmalbaf's auditions, convincing the director that he should be allowed to choose and direct the actor who plays his younger self, just as Makhmalbaf himself does with his counterpart. Through their discussion with these actors, we learn a great deal about how this "moment of innocence" affected both parties: Makhmalbaf sees it as an excess of naive youthful idealism, while the cop regrets it mostly because it cost him the opportunity to woo a girl with whom he'd fallen in love. Inevitably, the actors gradually alter the project by bringing their own opinions and interpretations to it.
Starting out as a fundamentalist who thought cinema could only be redeemed as a tool for Islamic propaganda, Makhmalbaf has taken a long, arduous road towards the graceful maturity of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE. He had his first two films withheld from a 1997 North American touring retrospective, but I have difficulty seeing how they could possibly be any worse than the Ed Wood-level directorial incompetence of FLEEING FROM EVIL TO GOD, his third film. A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE stands as the gentler flipside of SALAAM CINEMA, the first Makhmalbaf film to make a major impression on me. While SALAAM CINEMA exposes the possibilities for authoritarian cruelty inherent in directing actors, A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE suggests that filmmaking can be a therapeutic process for all involved.
Tayebi's performance is so convincing that Jonathan Rosenbaum, among others, was fooled into thinking that he's playing himself, although his audition (and that of GABBEH's lead actress) appears in SALAAM CINEMA. The improvisatory air of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE contributes to this atmosphere of realism: Makhmalbaf shoots several conversations in long, uninterrupted takes, as well as letting characters go heard but unseen (or only visible at the back of a long shot.) This Bazinian aesthetic is no accident or side effect of budget constraints, since GABBEH showed that he could make a film as pretty as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE LAST EMPEROR. The mise-en-scéne and relaxed pacing of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE allow the spectator to feel like he or she is getting to know the characters at the same time as they're getting to know each other. Although Makhmalbaf expounded a great deal on his thoughts about filmmaking in SALAAM CINEMA, he's generous enough here to give greater weight to his one-time antagonist. He obviously sees something of himself in the young actor whom he chooses as an alter ego - the teenager says that he wants to "save the world" - but he's too cagey to speak too openly to the actor about his regrets. Instead, casting this boy tests how well his one-time idealism stands up in the light of a much different day.
It's silly and patronizing for Westerners to value films from countries like China and Iran only to the extent that they function as social critiques - few critics would insist that every American film must deal directly with racism and economic inequality or every German film with the legacy of Nazism - but the political overtones of A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE's generosity are quite clear, especially once the actor who plays "young Makhmalbaf" becomes disgusted by the violence he's expected to re-enact. Rather than endorsing his point of view directly, Makhmalbaf simply asks if he plans to save the world by non-violent means, but his sympathy for this revulsion still comes across. Given the level of violence in some of his 80s films - THE PEDDLER is the only Iranian film I've seen that would probably receive an R rating from the MPAA - it may be an aesthetic mea culpa too.
A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE's attempt to do justice to all its characters' perspectives is just as provocative as its indirect critique of the Islamic revolution's violence. Even if Makhmalbaf intended the stabbing as a political protest, his victim saw the incident in terms of a purely personal loss. Indeed, the pain of the wound itself was nothing compared to his betrayal by a girl whom he adored from afar, which still hurts 20 years later. The complications that ensue when Makhmalbaf tries to re-stage the stabbing allow all 4 major characters to have their say, and instead of re-creating an image of violence, the haunting final shot suggests a reconciliation. In its own way, this film is as much an excavation of repressed historical trauma as Tian Zhuangzhuang's THE BLUE KITE or Hou Hsaio-hsien's CITY OF SADNESS/THE PUPPETMASTER/GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN trilogy, and its determination to imagine how the past could have proceeded in a more humane manner is an act of courage with few equals in 90s cinema.