“Le Cercle Rouge” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1970)

Film noir master Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970), was perhaps his greatest and most satisfying work.  One of the reasons for this is that, even with the always grim film-noir outlook notwithstanding, the film cast a relatively more positive light on its principal characters.

Of course like all the hard-core films noir, as I have discussed in my reviews of Melville’s Le Doulos and other films [1], the viewer doesn’t really get to know much about the main characters in these stories. There are no backstories concerning these characters.  All we know about then is that they are lone outsiders whose desperate lives are dominated by
  • Fatalism – they have no long-term goals and only seek an escape from their current desperate circumstsance
  • Truth – the world is dark and deceptive, with many people ready. to doublecross you.
  • Loyalty – the greatest virtue is to remain loyal to the precious few one can trust.
In many of Melville’s films, some of these dark protagonists’ cynicism and  unprincipled behavior (outside of their “honor among thieves” loyalty) may lessen our ability to empathize with their characters. They are just too despicable.  However, in Le Cercle Rouge all of the four principle characters are of interest and merit our concern.

Each of the four main characters embodies a different persona:

  • Corey (played by Melville favorite Alain Delon) is cool and calm.  But he is not a coldly detached narcissist, as the Delon character is in some of Melville’s other films.  In this film Corey is tough-minded and willing to accept the situation he faces; but he is also many times trusting and loyal to the people he meets.  When people let him down, he moves on without being obsessed by revenge.  He embodies loyalty.
  • Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) is an escapee from police custody.  He is more overtly passionate than Corey, but also coldly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He embodies the desperate fight against fatalistic inevitability.
  • Jansen (Yves Montand), the former policeman, is a loner and embodies the goal of principled self-reliance.
  • Mattei (André Bourvil), the police inspector, is a tough cop, but he believes in social harmony and the institutional instruments that promote such harmony.  He seems to believe in the inherent goodness of all people (and cats).  Incidentally Bourvil, who was a much-loved French comic actor, was to die of a fatal illness in the year Le Cercle Rouge was released (and Melville’s premature death occurred shortly thereafter), so an extra aura of fatalism was to hang over this film when it was viewed by the public.
The film focalizes on all four of these characters, and the audience can empathize with each of them.  Though Corey, Vogel, and Jansen are at odds with the law, we cannot help but see things from their existential point of view.  This being a Melville film noir, however, means that their ultimate outcomes are unlikely to be anything but disastrous.  Their dim fates are predetermined. To signify this fatal future, the film opens with an epigraph (composed by Melville, not by Buddha):
“Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.’”
This highlights Melville’s inclination to portray expressionistic nightmares.  As he once said [2],
“A film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it.”
This dreamworld is presented visually. There isn't much dialogue in the film, and one can basically understand the entire film through the visuals alone. This leads me to mention another feature of Le Cercle Rouge that makes it stand out in the Melville oeuvre: the outstanding cinematography of Henri Decae (The 400 Blows, 1959; Les Cousins, 1959; Sundays and Cybele, 1962). Decae’s work involved not only providing the film with an overall expressionistic tenor, but also the careful composition of many closeups and medium shots that are artfully edited together to create the existential tension that permeates the film.

The story of the film proceeds through four phases or acts.

1.  Corey and Vogel
The first third of the film’s running time is devoted to showing in parallel the separate activities of Corey and Vogel.  There is no real backstory on either of them, and the viewer must piece things together as revealed by slow disclosure.  The film jumps back and forth between the two threads, and they don’t connect until 43 minutes into the film [3].

Corey is about to be released from prison, presumably in Marseilles, after serving a five-year term. On the day before his release, he is informed by a corrupt prison guard about another criminal “job” that he could take up once he’s out.  Corey is less than enthusiastic about undertaking anything that could put him back in jail, but he can’t help listening to what’s on offer.

Meanwhile Vogel is some sort of criminal associated with political unrest who is being transported by train from Marseilles to Paris by Inspector Mattei.  Vogel manages to get out of his handcuffs and jump from the train, with Mattei and others in mad pursuit.  The filming of these scenes is very evocative of the seemingly hopeless circumstances of Vogel, as he runs helter-skelter through the bush.

Corey meanwhile pays a visit to a criminal associate named Rico who was connected with the crime that sent him to prison.  Thanks to Corey’s loyal silence, Rico escaped capture on that occasion and then stole Corey’s girlfriend in return.  Corey grimly accepts his girlfriend’s unfealty, but he needs cash, so he strong-arms Rico and grabs his gun and a handful of money and departs. 

After getting past a confrontation with two of Rico’s hit-men who have been sent out to recover Rico’s money, Corey uses the money to buy a car. (Melville always likes to evoke American gangland culture in his films, so his characters drive the decidedly un-French American models.  On this occasions Corey buys a Plymouth.)  He then heads off towards Paris and stops on the way at a roadside restaurant.

Vogel somehow manages to escape a massive police manhunt and, running past the restaurant where Corey has stopped, begins looking for a possible hiding place by checking to see if any trunks are unlocked among the parked cars.  As fate (or karma) would have it, Corey’s trunk is unlocked, and Vogel gets in and hides.  In fact there are many improbable and unlikely events that occur throughout this story.  I won't list them, and we will just have to assume that they have all been dictated to occur by fate.

Corey drives away knowing there is someone hiding in his trunk, and he stops in a lonely field to find out if his suspicions are correct: that his hidden passenger is the recently escaped prisoner that he has heard about on the road from Marseilles to Paris.  Vogel gets out of the trunk, and the thieves’ brotherhood takes over – Corey and Vogel quickly become friends. This is crucial, because they are soon again confronted by Rico’s hit-men, and Vogel saves Corey by killing the two men.

2.   Planning the Caper
Now with a partner, Corey can go ahead with preparing for the criminal job that he had heard about while in prison.  This section shows various details of that, including their apparent need to find an expert marksmen, as well as a fence to whom to pass some goods that they will steal.  The marksmen they select is an ex-policeman Vogel knows about, Jansen, who is trying to cure himself of his acute alcoholism.

During this act we learn that the job is to steal all the jewels from an upscale jewelry store at the Place Vendome in Paris.

Meanwhile Mattei, under pressure for having let Vogel escape from the train, is trying to talk to his various underworld informants concerning the whereabouts of Vogel.  His most important contact is a nightclub owner Santi, who is known to have underworld connections, and over whom Mattei can threaten in connection with some past nefarious, but unpunished, activities.

3.  The Heist
The jewelry heist itself is a masterly sequence of about 25 minutes, mostly without dialogue, and comparable to other famous heist sequences, such as those in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964).  Here Corey, Vogel, and Jansen carry out what apparently has been a meticulously planned operation to break into the posh jewelry store and circumvent the elaborate electronic security system that is used to protect the jewelry.  This is where the expert rifle marksman is needed: to fire a bullet that will deactivate the system.
They pull it off, just barely, and make off with the jewels.  But now they have to find a fence, because the original one they had secured has backed out.

4.  The Outcome
Mattei, of course, has been working all along to thwart Vogel, and he learns through Santi that Vogel was involved in the jewel heist.  So with Santi’s help, Mattei sets himself up as the fence that Corey and Vogel can use to pass on their jewelry.  There is a final confrontation, and you can guess that it doesn’t work out very well for Corey, Vogel, and Jansen.  The national police commissioner had admonished Mattei that all men are corrupt sooner or later.  But it was the individual virtues of the robbery team – Corey's trust and both Vogel's and Jansen's self-sacrificing loyalty – that ultimately did them in.

There are haunting, lingering images in this story that seem to have a metaphoric character – for example, Vogel crashing through windows, Corey’s enigmatic gaze, Mattei’s reflective visage, and the red rose that is passed to Corey by a cocktail waitress and which Vogel clings to later.  They seem to have some kind of vague significance beyond our understanding.

Overall, the story is relatively straightforward, and it is less complicated and littered with double-crosses than some of Melville’s other films.  What makes it all work is the charisma of the main characters, including Bourvil, who evinces a relatively compassionate humanity that is often missing in other Melville films.

But there is something else about Le Cercle Rouge’s charm that must be mentioned.  It has a kind of existential epic quality that characterizes American Western film and that has often fascinated European filmmakers. This was something that Sergio Leone intuitively understood and captured in his "spaghetti Westerns", notably For a Few Dollars More (1965) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Leone’s most famous films came just before Le Cercle Rouge, and Melville was certainly aware of them [4].  Indeed actor Gian Maria Volontè had been a star of For a Few Dollar More. As Melville, himself remarked,
“The Cercle rouge script is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in the present day rather than after the Civil War, and with cars instead of horses. So I start off with the traditional—almost obligatory—conventional situation: the man just released from jail. And this man corresponds pretty much to the cowboy who, once the opening credits are over, pushes open the doors of a saloon.” [5]
We’re not just talking about a “horse opera”.  Melville and Leone (and, to some extent, Hitchcock, too) each understood that one can convey the dream-like nature of conscious existence by exploiting the expressionistic possibilities of deep social metaphors, such as the Western and the noirish underworld. They were not academically-oriented intellectuals, but they had an intuitive understanding of how to visually evoke and explore some aspects of life’s mysteries.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Jean-Pierre Melville”, The Film Sufi.
  2. World Film Directors, Vol. II., John Wakeman (ed.), Wilson, co., NY 1988, quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Le Cercle Rouge”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, XVIII:8, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (3 March  2009).
  3. I am referring to the uncut two-hour-and-twenty-minute version of the film.  Shorter versions of the film were released initially.
  4. Chris Fujiwara, “Le cercle rouge: What Is the Red Circle?”, The Criterion Collection, (12 April 2011).
  5. Jean-Pierre Melville, “Melville on “Le cercle rouge”, The Criterion Collection, (excerpted from Rui Nogueira, Melville on Melville, 1971) (12 April 2011).

“Through the Olive Trees” - Abbas Kiarostami (1994)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Zeyton, 1994) was one of the veteran director’s films that first attracted international attention and elevated him to star status.  It was his third film – coming after Where Is the Friend's Home? (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast, 1987) and Life, and Nothing More... (Zendegi va Digar Hich, 1992) – that was shot in and around a rural village in northwestern Iran, Koker, that was the site of a devastating earthquake in 1990.  It was undoubtedly the earthquake, which killed 35,000-50,000 people and injured more than 100,000, that led Kiarostami to revisit Koker and to fashion films that considered what matters in life. These three films set in Koker are sometimes referred to as the “Koker Trilogy”, although Kiarostami, himself, apparently doesn’t consider them to be a trilogy [1].  In fact, though, the three Koker films are definitely linked, and Through the Olive Trees is a story associated with the making of Life, and Nothing More....

Kiarostami is famous for his distinctive cinematic style, which features static long takes, often lasting several minutes, as well as reflective, semi-documentary styled stories that sometimes explicitly self-reference the making of the film that is shown. This has attracted the fascination of some intellectually-oriented international film critics who see his work as examining or questioning the reality of what can be told [2].  But in my view Through the Olive Trees is not so much about the nature of reality as it is about personal engagement.  And that is where its charm lies.  I will try to elaborate on that below.

The story concerns the making of a film (evidently Life, and Nothing More...) in Koker after the earthquake disaster, and it opens with the actor who plays the director of the film to be shot  speaking directly to the camera about the open-call casting interviews he is conducting. Note that the role of the film director, whose name is never given but who presumably represents Kiarostami, is played by the only professional actor in this film, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz.  All the other roles are performed by nonprofessionals, as is customary in Kiarostami films. This includes not only the locals, who simply play themselves, but also members of Kiarostami’s own film crew, such as cinematographer Hossein Jafarian (Crimson Gold, 2003; Fireworks Wednesday 2006; About Elly, 2009; Gold and Copper, 2011) and assistant director Jafar Panahi

Following this opening statement to the film’s viewers, the film director turns around and begins scanning the faces of the assembled young ladies hoping to be chosen for a small role in the film.  He clearly has a picture in his mind of what he is looking for, as he briefly queries a few girls before ultimately choosing a young woman named  Tahereh Landanian. We soon learn, though, that Tahereh is somewhat stubborn and self-centered and thus not necessarily the kind of cooperative person who will take direction when the camera is running.  But the film director has his own intuition and has made his choice.

So the beginning of the film establishes the primary narrative thread: the director’s task of making a film in the earthquake-ravaged village, where most of survivors are now living in tents because their homes were destroyed.  For example the task of just creating the right setting of a normal home means having to gather potted plants from neighboring areas, and the director’s rigorously and energetic production manager, Mrs. Shiva, takes care of such details by getting some help from two local boys, Babek and Ahmed Ahmed-Poor (who we might recognize as the principal characters of Where Is the Friend's Home?). 

Getting the locals to act naturally is another problem, and the film director patiently persists through numerous retakes of a simple shot because his local actor stammers in front of women and so cannot utter his few simple lines to Tahereh. (The tediousness of watching these many retakes unconsciously highlights in the viewer’s mind the differences between spontaneous reality and  the artificiality of narrative retelling.)  The film director is finally persuaded to replace the actor with a backup local, Hossein, and so Mrs. Shiva drives away to fetch him.  As she drives back to the filming setup with Hossein in tow, she chats with the man, and this is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the story.  From now on the narrative focalization will primarily be on Hossein.

When they go ahead and reshoot the earlier scene now with Hossein, still another problem emerges to block progress.  It seems that Tahereh is familiar with Hossein and refuses to speak to him.  Hossein explains to the director that just before the earthquake he had proposed to Tahereh’s parents for her hand in marriage, but he had been refused because he was illiterate and didn’t own a house. Tahereh’s parents had perished in the earthquake, but Hossein's reissued proposal to the girl’s grandmother after the quake was also rejected.

But Hossein doesn’t give up.  He is patient and courteous but almost maniacally persistent in his attempts to win his beloved.  Hossein fell passionately in love with Tahereh just because he saw her reading a book one day and thereby knew that she was a well-groomed, literate young woman.  With absolutely no encouragement from the girl – she refuses to speak to him or look at him – the young man stubbornly perseveres in what seems like a hopeless quest.

We now start to get a feeling of what this film is ultimately about and how the two narrative threads, that of the director and that of Hossein, are linked.  The director, who is an observant and reflective sort of person, came to Koker to see how the earthquake had affected the people who lived there.  What he sees and encounters in his various conversations with the locals is that the people remain composed, kindly, and civilized, but the horrors of what has happened seem to have left them withdrawn and resigned to their fate.  They seem almost shell-shocked when they matter-of-factly mention to the director that their spouses and parents perished in the event. 

For example when the director talks to an elderly man named Bagheri who almost offhandedly remarks that his wife was killed in the event, he asks him if he intends to find another companion. No, that wouldn’t be right, Bagheri passively tells the director.  But the director urges him to embrace the life-world in front of him and to reconsider his position.
The film director sees that the bulk of the people he meets have stoically survived the quake, but they have become so withdrawn that they will likely miss out on what life further has to offer.  And this is where Hossein offers a contrast to this withdrawn passivity.  The young man is passionately committed to his romantic quest, almost irrationally so. But his passion for engagement is what seems to be lacking among the people around him.  It is this passion for life that the director sees in him and wants somehow to encourage.

Mrs. Shiva’s coercive persuasion manages to get Tahereh to recite her few lines to Hossein, and the filming of their scene is resumed. During the setup when Hossein and Tahereh are momentarily out of sight from the crew, Hossein continues to beseech the young woman to consider his proposal.  But she still refuses to speak to him or even look at him when she is not required to do so by the film script.  Hossein tells her that even though the grandmother has rejected him, he wants to know what she, herself, thinks.  Is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’?  But the girl doesn’t respond.

In some sense we might compare Tahereh’s non-responsiveness to Hossein’s entreaties to the perceived non-responsiveness of God to our prayers.  Just like Hossein, many of us have fashioned a love for God based on very little evidence.  We beg Him (or Her) to love us, or even to give us a sign, any sign, that He hears our pleas.  And when we don’t get any response, we still go on believing and loving Him.  We know He must be the perfect loving Being that we feel within our hearts has to be out there somewhere.  So, like Hossein, we don’t give up.
After the first shot of the scene, Hossein, who also works for the film crew as a servant serves tea to everyone on the film set.  This is presented in a long and memorable 60-second moving-camera shot, with the tea tray always in closeup as Hossein moves about the set.  This was my favorite of the many well-executed long-take shots in this film.

Finally they get setup for the second shot of this sequence [3].  In the take Tahereh refuses to address Hossein as “Hossein Agha” (“Mr. Hossein") as the script required.  But Hossein, ever the gallant gentleman despite his lower-class status, sticks up for her reading, and the film director accepts the shots as a successful “wrap”. 

Now with their parts of the film finished, Hossein and Tahereh get ready with others to be driven back to their homes in a pickup truck.  There is some delay, though, and the impatient Tahereh sets off on foot, using a shortcut she knows about through the olive groves, to catch a minibus.  The film director, noticing her departure and the opportunity to encourage the one passionate local he has seen, suggests to Hossein that he also take that path home.

Hossein sets out in hot pursuit.  This is his last chance to be around the girl.  After he almost catches up with here, there is a four-minute sequence of alternating medium shots of the two of them – Tahereh silently walking ahead and Hossein respectfully following – showing him making his last desperate pleas. Also interested to see if she will ever respond, the film director watches them from a safe distance.  Finally Hossein despondently gives up and appears headed back to the pickup truck. But then he has a last-second, impulsive change of heart and again runs after her.

The final shot, which is the signal moment of the film and lingers in one’s memory long afterwards, lasts four minutes and shows Tahereh walking far away in the distance with Hossein in pursuit.  We finally only see the two of them as little more than little dots in the distance that have almost merged with the arboreal countryside landscape. It is difficult for the viewer to make it out because the principals are such tiny images, but it appears that Hossein catches up with her and perhaps there is some kind of engagement.  Hossein comes rushing back through the meadow toward the camera as the film ends.

There has been considerable commentary about that last shot and what it means.  Did Hossein finally make contact with his god(dess)?  Can we?  All we can be sure about is that the full, soulful engagement between two people is what the film director, Hossein, and we, are always looking for. 

  1. Godfrey Cheshire, “Taste of Cherry”, The Criterion Collection, (31 May 1999).
  2. Acquarello, “Through the Olive Trees: Life as Art…as Life”, Senses of Cinema,   (September 2000).
  3. Interestingly, if, as indicated by the film clapperboard that is shown, this second shot is to come directly after the previous shot, then it suggests a jump cut will be needed.

“A Moment of Innocence” - Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996)

Iranian cinema, reflecting its national culture, has long been fascinated with how our reality is shaped by subjective personal experience.  Since an accurate depiction of what is real generally depends on whose perspective is seen, the boundary between narrative fiction and documentary reality is consequently sometimes blurred. This blurring has sometimes been accentuated in Iranian cinema by the influence of Italian neorealism, which features real locations and has many roles performed by ordinary, off-the-street people playing themselves. As a consequence we sometimes don’t know whether we are watching a documentary or a fiction film (and this ambiguity is often just what the director intends). Iranian writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf plays with these issues extensively in his highly praised A Moment of Innocence (Nun va Goldoon, meaning “Bread and the Flower Vase”, 1996), which concerns a real event from Makhmalbaf’s own life [1]. 

To be sure, Makhmalbaf’s life has not been ordinary – even for an artist.  Born via a temporary marriage in an intensely religious family, the young boy dropped out of school as a teenager and joined a fanatical Islamist group bent on overthrowing the imperial Iranian government and assassinating the Shah.  In 1974 at the age of 17, Makhmalbaf was arrested for stabbing a policeman and sentenced to be executed.  Because he was under the age of 18, though, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Makhmalbaf was freed five years later during the Iranian Revolution. A Moment of Innocence concerns Makhmalbaf’s attempt to revisit that stabbing incident that took place some twenty years before the making of this film.  As he remarks in the film, he wants to recreate his youth with a camera.

But documenting what has happened in the past can be problematic, especially when one has the right intention of capturing personal motivations and circumstances.  Perhaps efforts to capture these motivations is why Iranian documentary films sometimes wander off into staged reenactments of relevant events, often with the original participants replaying their roles in the staged productions (cf., for example, Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars [2], 2013).  A fascinating exploration of issues associated with this kind of cinematic narrative reexamination is Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), a documentary film in which Makhmalbaf was an onscreen participant.  Close-Up had the interesting, but complicating, feature of self-reflectively incorporating within its subject matter the film-making process of its own construction.  It is not unreasonable to assume that Makhmalbaf’s participation in that earlier film influenced his further documentary narrative excursion in A Moment of Innocence.

The key triggering event for Makhmalbaf’s choosing to make this film, though, was when the very same policeman that he had stabbed back in 1974, Mirhadi Tayebi, unexpectedly showed up for Makhmalbaf’s open casting call in connection with his 1994 documentary production Salam Cinema [3].  Tayebi was at this point an ex-policeman looking for work as an actor, and Makhmalbaf decided to make a film with Tayebi’s participation about what had happened between them back in 1974.

So now with A Moment of Innocence, we have two men with presumably different perspectives attempting to recreate the reality of what happened twenty years earlier.  And somewhat like Close-Up, this film reflexively examines, sometimes mischievously, the process of its own making.  This is what makes A Moment of Innocence either something of an intriguing game or just maddeningly disconcerting, depending on your tastes.

The film opens with Tayebi approaching Makhmalbaf’s residence and asking his daughter Hana (Mohsen is not at home at the time) if he can have a part in Mohsen’s new film.  Tayebi displays evident humility and shows no signs of resentment towards the man who had almost killed him twenty years earlier.  Evidently Tayebi is hired, because the next scenes show the open casting calls for people to play the roles of the young Makhmalbaf and the young Tayebi in the upcoming film about the stabbing. 

Makhmalbaf selects a teenage applicant not for his acting abilities but because the boy apparently represents the youthful embodiment of Mohsen’s inner self: an idealist bent on saving the world.  For his part, Tayebi similarly selects a self-confident young tough who he sees as an idealization of himself back then. But Makhmalbaf overrules Tayebi’s choice and to the latter’s disappointment selects a less masculine and more awkward young man to play the role of the young policeman.

So now, in this film, Makhmalbaf has the job of preparing the boy chosen to play the young Makhmalbaf, and similarly Tayebi has to do the same thing for the boy who is to play the young policeman.  Much of the rest of the film shows these two pairings going about their preparations for the filming in parallel fashion, and this is where we start to see the different narrative layers being laid out before the viewer.  Occasionally these two narrative threads intersect, and on such occasions a shot that had earlier appeared in the context of one sub-narrative perspective (e.g. the young policeman perspective) is repeated, but this time is now seen in the context of another sub-narrative perspective (e.g. the young Makhmalbaf perspective).

In the mini-story that is intended to be filmed (the film within this film, so to speak), there is no backstory presented – only the actual stabbing incident seems to be on the menu.  Makhmalbaf’s intention at that past moment in 1974 was to steal the policeman’s gun in order to use it in a later effort to assassinate the Shah.  And to help accomplish his task back then, Makhmalbaf had elicited his girlfriend (who was also his cousin) to momentarily distract the policeman so that he could make a quick grab of the gun.  But the operation was botched, and after the stabbing both Makhmalbaf and his cousin were arrested.  So in this sparse retelling of what happened there are only three characters to be shown:
  1. the young policeman
  2. the young Makhmalbaf
  3. Makhmalbaf’s female cousin.
This sounds simple enough, but remember that there are multiple, overlapping narrative perspectives for this film-within-a-film.  Consider first what happens in a typical film in which there may be a number of characters.  As the narrative focalization shifts to any of them, we see events from the perspective of that focalization and empathize with that given character.  In some films there may only be a single focalization throughout, and we see everything from a single perspective. Things get more complicated, however, when there are multiple focalizations associated with narrative perspectives that overlap, as in A Moment of Innocence.

In this connection there are multiple perspectives with respect to each of the principal characters.  For example with respect to the young Makhmalbaf there are, at least, the following perspectives:
  • There is the perspective that the viewer constructs out of the material presented in the film of the 17-year-old boy.  Let us designate this particular perspective on the young Makhmalbaf as “YM1".
  • There is also the perspective that the teenage actor has on the role he is playing (YM2).  The viewer is aware that the idealistic young actor may have a somewhat different perspective on this character.
  • Then there is the perspective that the 38-year-old Makhmalbaf shown in the film has on his former self (YM3).  We know that it was instilled with idealistic enthusiasm, but we also know that it included violent hatred and rigid doctrine that motivated his interests in assassinating the Shah.
With respect to the young policeman, Tayebi, there are also multiple perspectives of interest:
  • There is again the perspective that the viewer constructs on his or her own of the 20-year-old policeman (YP1).
  • And there is the perspective that the naive 20-year-old evinces towards the role he is playing of the young policeman (YP2).
  • There is also the perspective that the 40-year-old Tayebi shown in the film has on his former self (YP3).  In particular, his major regret about that incident twenty years earlier was not that he was stabbed and almost killed but that it cost him the chance to approach the girl he had fallen in love with while on the beat. 
With respect to the young girl accomplice of Makhmalbaf, there are again several perspectives.  In the film as shown, Makhmalbaf contacts his cousin and former girlfriend, who had married someone else after her prison release and raised a family, in the hopes of getting the woman’s daughter to play the role of the accomplice.  The cousin ultimate refused to give her permission for this, so Makhmalbaf engaged instead the cousin of the actor playing his younger self in the film (YM2) to play the role of the girl.  So there are at least these four perspectives of interest:
  • the perspective the viewer constructs of the girl (YG1)
  • the perspective Makhmalbaf’s cousin has on the girl (YG2)
  • the perspective YG2's daughter has on the girl (YG3)
  • the perspective YM2's cousin, who winds up getting the part, has on the girl (YG4)

The perspectives that Makhmalbaf and Tayebi have on their younger selves (YM3 and YP3) are now (in 1996) colored by changes that have occurred in their lives over the ensuing twenty years.  Makhmalbaf was a rigid Islamic revolutionary in 1974 and upon his release from prison he took up filmmaking and became a prolific propaganda mouthpiece for the Islamic Republic regime. But over time he began to widen his scope and moderate his views, which led to severe criticism from the regime’s hardliners.  He ultimately left the country in 2005 to live in France.  Later he supported the progressive Green Movement in the controversial 2009 elections and was consequently subjected to four assassination attempts organized by the Iranian Supreme Leader [4]. He has since traveled to Israel to attend film festivals in an attempt to promote social harmony and tolerance.  So the idealist Makhmalbaf has moved from a hardline stance to a more compassionate one. 

Tayebi, at least as shown in this film, may have moved the other way.  He had been in love with a woman whom he thought was flirting with him while he was on duty.  He only realizes during the presented making of this film that the woman he loved was actually Makhmalbaf’s cousin-accomplice.  We (and he) can only assume that her earlier approaches towards Tayebi were merely contrived to set him up, and this thought makes him bitter and want to abandon the production.

Although that is the key dramatic revelation that comes out in the filmmaking process,  Makhmalbaf seems primarily interested in saying something about the difficulties of accurately dramatizing past events. And this he does by intentionally mixing up some of the roles in this story.  At one point Makhmalbaf’s cousin’s daughter (YG3) and the young-Makhmalbaf actor (YM2) seem to be operating as if they really are YG1 and YM1.  There are other situations presented that suggest a further mixing of such perspectives, such as, during the filming, when Tayebi recognizes the girl approaching the young policeman as his past love.  This is what makes the film something of a comedy to some viewers, but I didn’t see the overall point to this gameplay.  Thus, despite the general excellence of the film’s cinematography and editing, I thought the film lacked a compelling narrative flow and instead wallowed too much of the time in its characterological trickery.

Note that what characterized Makhmalbaf’s overall word-view back then, and later, too, was social justice; while Tayebi’s overall stance was dominated by all-consuming romantic love.  Both of these worthy intentions are shown to have been present in the original incident, but they were stymied by thoughts and instruments of punishment and violence. The young people who have been recruited to play the roles of the 1974 characters, however, have no such instincts for malevolence and seem to be entirely open, considerate, and, well, innocent.  They don’t have stored-up resentment inside them and cannot sympathize with the violent action in which they have been chosen to participate.  The final image of the film glosses over whatever violent motivations may have led to that moment and instead emphasizes the inherent innocence of those younger people.  Both men were in love with the girl, and what we see at the end are only offering gestures of benevolence.
  1. Opinions are mixed, however.  Some see the film as an all-time great, while others dismiss it entirely.  cf.
  2. Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars, The Film Sufi, (8 August 2014).
  3. Salam Cinema is also a self-referencing and reflexive exploration of documentary realism.
  4. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, "Why I tried to kill the Shah of Iran - filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf interviewed", Post Magazine, South China Morning Post (10 April 2015).

Babak Payami

Films of Babak Payami:

“Tangsir” - Amir Naderi (1974)

Tangsir (1974) was an early action/adventure film of writer-director Amir Naderi and concerns the “heroic” actions of a man in response to his having been swindled out of his life savings. The story is based on Sadegh Chubak’s novel Tangsir (1963), which is set in the southwestern Iranian coastal province of Bushehr around 1935.  Naderi’s film was a hit with the public, presumably because it evokes emotive feelings about justice, honor, and patriotism.  But the primary emotion  that hovers throughout the story is that of revenge.

Revenge is often a key element of adventure narratives.  Some wrong or injustice has been committed early on in the piece, and the protagonist in the story strives to put things right.  The visceral urge to wreak revenge may be a driving force among some of the characters, but the main goal is usually to regain what has been lost and to reestablish harmony.  However, there is a narrative subgenre that is totally devoted to revenge, itself.  The whole point of the revenge film (or revenge narrative, if you will) is to build up a sense of righteous wrath in the viewer and to have that angry tension released at the end of the story by depicting vengeful punishment on the evildoers.  Such films are often dismissed as exploitation, “drive-in theater” films and not considered to be worthy of our admiration.  Nevertheless, Tangsir belongs to that category.

There is something about Tangsir, however, that is distinct from most revenge films.  The typical revenge film devotes most of its story – say, 80% of the running time – to depicting the cruel injustices on the part of the evil perpetrators.  This builds up the frustration on the part of the viewer, who longs for justice to be reestablished.  Then at the end comes a short, cathartic climax that supposedly sets things right.  In Tangsir, though, the temporal weights are reversed.  About a quarter of the film is devoted to showing the injustices, and the remaining three-quarters are devoted to an excruciating orgy of vengeful slaughter.

The story of Tangsir concerns Zar (Za’er) Mohammad, a sturdy workman from the Tangestan area of Bushehr province.  People from that area are apparently referred to as “tangsirs” and known for having a characteristic tribal commonality of toughness [1].  Zar Mohammad feels that it is his duty to uphold the honor of the tangsirs.  The film’s narrative progresses through four sections, or acts.

1.  Zar Mohammad’s Misery
This first act relates the details of how Zar Mohammad was cheated.  This occurred two years prior to the film’s beginning when Zar Mohammad invested his life’s savings of 2,000 tomans, the results of 20 years of hard labor, in a business venture with a merchant, Abdoul Karim, from the local bazaar.  But the merchant declared bankruptcy and informed Zar Mohammad that all his money was lost, even though the merchant has continued operating his stall in the bazaar as before.  Actually, there were four people involved in setting up this swindle.
  • Abdoul Karim, the bazaar merchant
  • Ali, a lawyer who apparently keeps track of legal aspects of business affairs
  • Sheikh Abou Torab, a local mullah who prepared and authorized the original papers of the deal.
  • Rajab, another merchant and friend of Sheikh Torab, who also participated in the original arrangement.
Zar Mohammad has been beseeching all four of these characters for justice, but they all dismiss the man as a loser and abusively turn him away. Zar Mohammad begs the sheikh on hands and knees, kissing the man’s hand and asking him to have pity on him, saying he would even accept 300 tomans in return at this point. He then goes further and tells them that he would even accept a pittance of 2 rials a day so that he won’t be ashamed in front of his own people.  As it is, he says he is a laughing stock of his tribe.  In response to Zar Mohammad’s plight, they all laugh at the poor man and kick him out of the sheikh’s residence.  Seeing this humiliation, Zar Mohammad vows revenge.

We see what Zar Mohammad’s real concern is. It is primarily a matter of his dignity in front of others of his community.  He is most concerned about losing face.  This is evidently a major theme of the original novel: maintaining face was deemed more important than anything, including one’s family [2].

2.  Acts of Revenge
After consulting a mullah, who advised him to put his faith in the Koran, Zar Mohammad does that and, as a result, decides what he is going to do: kill the four men who have humiliated him.  As he tells his father-in-law, he will kill them
“not for the money, but because they took away my honor. Everyone mocks me.”
The father-in-law approves of the plan and adds further that a true tangsir should never die of old age, but in battle.

Zar Mohammad then digs up his old rifle that he had used 20 years earlier to support the vain attempt of a famous tangsir, Rais Ali Delvari, to resist a British invasion of Tangestan in 1915 [2]. This rifle, along with a trusty hatchet, will be Zar Mohammad’s weapons of war against his tormentors. 

His wife is horrified by her husband’s intentions, but she offers her full support.  Her main concern is the almost certain upcoming death of her husband.  As she tells him, if her two children were to die, she could accept it, because she could always get another child.  But, she says, he is irreplaceable for her.  (Such an attitude strikes me as more likely coming from the male authors than from a woman, at least the kinds women that I know.)

Anyway, Zar Mohammad goes to Abdoul Karim’s stall in the bazaar, sticks his rifle barrel in the man’s chest, and shoots him dead. He then goes to Sheikh Torab’s quarters and points his gun into that man’s chest, too, which again elicits terror and whimpering begging for mercy from his victim.  Zar Mohammad clearly relishes humiliating the man, as he watches with satisfaction while the terrified cleric prostrates himself and kisses Zar Mohammad’s feet.

But that’s only for a few seconds, as Zar Mohammad then blows the sheikh away with a rifle shot. Finally, Zar Mohammad goes to the lawyer Ali’s quarters and carries out another point-blank assassination on him in the same fashion as the others. 

Mounted police finally arrive, firing randomly into a crowd that has gathered to follow Zar Mohammad’s actions.  In the ensuing  melee Zar Mohammad shoots and hacks his way out to temporary safety – a hiding place behind the counter of a corner food shop.

3.  Growing Support
After Zar Mohammad’s murderous mayhem, one might think that the local populace would be horrified, but quite the opposite reaction is observed.. People seem to regard him as a hero and begin chanting his praise, calling him “Shir Mohammad”, which means “Mohammad the Lion”.
The breadth of Zar Mohammad’s appeal is illustrated in this section of the film by showing the support he gets from the Armenian owner of the shop where Zar Mohammad is hiding.  The Armenian sells alcohol at his shop and presumably represents a wider and more nonpartisan social view. Even some of the police support the killer.  A police lieutenant confesses to Zar Mohammad’s wife that he disobeyed orders from his captain so that he could give the killer enough leeway to complete his killing spree.

4.  The Final Murder
The fourth target, Rajab, is now hiding in the home of Seyyed, a descendent of the Prophet and therefore a presumed holy man.  Zar Mohammad gains entry to Seyyed’s home and drags the whimpering Rajab out onto the street, where a supportive crowd is waiting for Zar Mohammad to finish the job.  After shouting out to the crowd that they should never allow themselves to be cheated by usurers, Zar Mohammad points his rifle into Rajab’s chest and finishes him off like all the others.

The mounted police arrive, and begin shooting indiscriminately.  The crowd angrily resists in  support of Zar Mohammad.  What started out as an individual dispute has now become a full-scale insurrection.  In the resulting chaos, Zar Mohammad manages to jump into the sea and begins swimming away as the film ends.

Tangsir does have some good production values, with fine acting from Behrouz Vossoughi, in the role of Zar Mohammad, as well as excellent cinematography on the part of Nemat Haghighi and good music from Loris Tjeknavorian.  On the other hand the acting performances of the four doomed swindlers are so exaggerated and artificial in their attempts to portray contemptible characters that they wind up being ludicrous. 

However, Tangsir has more fundamental problems than with any specifics of the technical production.  The film’s overall message is both wrongheaded and reprehensible. It pretends to extol the virtues of a man fighting for the rights of the people.  But the hate-filled protagonist in this story is not so noble as that.  He merely feels personally cheated on his investment and therefore humiliated. So he decides to murder those who made him lose face.  The film’s message purports to applaud his actions, as if he represents a firm and virtuous path towards social justice.  Nonsense.  Zar Mohammad’s murderous rampage is only undertaken to support his own pride, not social welfare.  He even admits to this in the film.  And the tortuous and torturous way he carries out his vengeful acts reflects a man who revels in punishment and thinks it should include torture [3]. If a legal system is corrupt and does not offer a reasonable path towards remedying injustice, then joint, cooperative social action is required, not self-justified murder.

We need films that send just the opposite message, those that promote love and compassion. Zar Mohammad and his wife had already possessed the greatest of all treasures – love for each other.  And the man threw it all away because he had lost money and therefore felt so ashamed that he felt he had to kill to restore his honor. This is the kind of demented mindset that promotes honor killings. His violent, selfish path is not something that the general populace should admire and is not a model for social justice.

  1. When Tangsir was released to English-speaking areas, its English language title was “Tight Spot”, an apparent reference the Farsi word “tang”, which means “tight”.
  2. Laleh Khalili, “Tangsir”, The Gamming, (18 October 2014).
  3. Regrettably, there are prominent political figures today with the same attitudes.