Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Writer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
DP: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Score: Madjid Entezami
Producer: Abolfazi Alagheband
Starring: Mirhadi Tayebi, Ammar Tafti, Ali Bakhsi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Maryam Mohamadamini
Distribution: NFM Distributie
Length: 1 hr. 18 min.

22 years before the filming of A Moment of Innocence, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a member of a militant group that opposed the Shah of Iran.  He was jailed for stabbing a policeman, and released 5 years later after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  20 years later, the policeman he attacked approached him asking for a role in one of his films.  A Moment of Innocence is inspired by that encounter.

In A Moment of Innocence, Makhmalbaf takes up a camera instead of a knife. Though it was inspired by an event that did take place, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf plays himself, the film is a work of fiction. The story is as follows: the policeman, played by Mirhadi Tayebi, seeks out Makhmalbaf to ask for a role in a film. Instead of getting a part, the policeman is assigned to direct a younger actor's performance in Makhmalbaf's film. It's a dramatization of the day the policeman was stabbed, and he will be directing the actor to play himself, 22 years younger. Makhmalbaf does the same. Makhmalbaf's plan is to have himself and the policeman direct their respective younger selves independently and without meeting until the scene of the stabbing, so that the spontaneous moment can be captured on film.

Of course, it's not spontaneous. The fictional Makhmalbaf may work independently of the other characters, but we know the real Makhmalbaf is everywhere in the film. So, when the policeman bares his soul to the young man meant to play him, we know he's there, at least in part. When the young man meant to play Makhmalbaf talks about his desire to save the world while also lamenting the world's immensity, he's there too. We need not insist that we know what the directors' intentions were or that they are the final word on the film, but it is important to understand that some intention exists behind A Moment of Innocence.

The boy who plays the young Makhmalbaf doesn't know how to save the world because of how enormous it is. But the world of A Moment of Innocence isn't so big. It feels somewhat penned in. Even in open spaces, trees line up along the edges so densely that they resemble walls. The plot replays itself, reducing the scope of its story by showing the collision between narrative threads that seemed unrelated at first. Even the characters are consolidated as the young actors become further and further immersed in their roles as younger versions of Makhmalbaf and the policeman.

Late in the film, the young man meant to play the policeman leaves a prop from the film (a potted flower) behind. He intends to pick it back up later, using a shaft of sunlight as a landmark. When he goes back to retrieve it, the sunlight has changed and he can't find it.

We might not expect the loss of such a simple prop to be a significant problem, but his search for the flower is shot and scored with great urgency. The flower, after all, represented the young policeman's attraction to a girl who used to visit him when he was a police officer; to acknowledge it was just a prop would undo the immersed, spontaneous method by which they're trying to dramatize past events. The urgency isn't about losing a prop, it's about the film's reality being threatened.

But even if the world of A Moment of Innocence exists on a smaller scale than the real world, the question still remains: how does someone "save" it? We know the story that eventually gave rise to this film involves something unresolved between him and the policeman. But the Tayebi character's relationship with the Makhmalbaf character is only a fictionalized account of the real life policeman's relationship with the real life Makhmalbaf. Then again, even if the film doesn't exactly reproduce reality, does that mean it doesn't do it justice?

And what of the younger actors? We never see the past, but it sometimes feels like we do; it becomes easy to forget who they really are. In the end, they are treated as independent characters, but ones who want to understand their roles enough that they try to step outside of themselves. There's a scene at the beginning of the film in which the young actors are selected, and they're chosen for their interest in and empathy for other people. The audience learns the film's account of the past through them.

It comes down to the film's final image, and our understanding of the film world as something shaped by intentions. The end is the moment of innocence: when the time comes to spontaneously replicate the past, we instead get something completely different. Intentions change.

Is that enough to save the world, or even a small part of it? No. But it's not Makhmalbaf himself who appears in the final scene; the moment of innocence obtains not in Makhmalbaf, but in a figure who understood his intentions and the change they underwent. The ending differentiates between the characters who so increasingly resembled each other in the preceding parts of the film. The changing of intentions is one condition of the moment of innocence; the other is the intersection of distinct people.

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