“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).

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