Nun va Goldoon
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 01 February 2006
Source New Yorker DVD
A Moment of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s fifteenth film, returns to a defining event in the director’s life. In 1974, the seventeen-year-old Makhmalbaf, along with two other anti-Shah activists, attacked a policeman in an alley. (In his liner notes on this New Yorker DVD, Godfrey Cheshire describes it as an attack on a police station, rather than the tussle in an alley with a lone police officer that it actually was. The blow-by-blow details can be found in Makhmalbaf’s lengthy interview with Hamid Dabashi in the latter’s book Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future.) The policeman was stabbed four times by Makhmalbaf, and Makhmalbaf was shot, captured, tortured, and imprisoned until the outbreak of the Iranian revolution.
Makhmalbaf’s subsequent filmmaking career, especially from the beginning of the nineties, has expressed a disaffection from the violence underpinning Khomeini’s revolution and underpinning Makhmalbaf’s own youthful act, and this is a central theme of A Moment of Innocence. But the film also shares with other Makhmalbaf films of the early nineties such as Once Upon A Time, Cinema, The Actor, and Salaam Cinema an interest in enquiring into the nature of cinema itself and in particular exploring the ever-shifting boundary line between the source “reality” and what is represented in film as that reality. It’s an interest shared by other Iranian filmmakers — think of the shift to video at the end of Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry; or the “breakdown” in the middle of Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror when the child actress refuses to continue in her role; or indeed the whole premise of Kiarostami’s Close-Up.
In fact, Close-Up seems a pretty clear precursor to and model for A Moment of Innocence. Kiarostami’s film deals with another incident in Makhmalbaf’s life, when someone impersonating him convinced a middle-class family to help finance a film. These events are re-enacted for Kiarostami’s film in the actual locations by the actual participants, with Makhmalbaf himself turning up at the end of the film to meet the impersonator. Is this documentary or fiction? What’s fascinating about Close-Up is the way the actual status of what we’re seeing is made so unclear, how the line constantly and uncertainly shifts between these “actors” being themselves and performing themselves. It’s a strategy that ultimately undermines any pretense at locating documentary “truth.”
There’s a scene in A Moment of Innocence that offers a perfect example of this constant shifting between being and performing. We see Makhmalbaf paying a visit, with “Makhmalbaf” (the young actor he has chosen to portray him as a young man), to his female cousin, the woman who was used as a decoy in the attack on the policeman in 1974. The woman’s daughter now wants to play her own mother in the forthcoming film (or is it in the film we are now watching?), although at the end of this scene the mother’s off-camera voice will deny her daughter permission. At any rate, the young actor and the daughter are introduced and hold a brief conversation first as themselves, but then suddenly and without warning they begin to play the roles of the girl’s own mother and the young Makhmalbaf, before slipping back into “themselves.” It’s an exhilarating if disconcerting effect.
A Moment of Innocence is a constantly self-aware and self-reflexive work. It’s broken up into sections marked by clapperboards and titles such as “‘Young Makhmalbaf’ has been chosen.” There’s continual talk about cinema, whether it’s about the film being planned/made, or the example of the tailor and his stories of the glories of the past (Kirk Douglas, John Ford, The Vikings, Spartacus). There are even jokes about filmmaking — the ex-policeman’s inappropriate and self-flattering choice of a young hunk to pay his younger self or his stated desire for a positive role; the cry to the young Makhmalbaf- and cousin-actors and to a passer-by of “Don’t look at the camera” (shades of Apocalypse Now?); or Makhmalbaf’s own behind-the-camera scolding of the beggar-woman for saying “Thank-you” in French rather than Farsi.
The film splits into alternate sections as first the ex-policeman finds his actor and trains him for the central scene of the attack, and then Makhmalbaf does the same with the young actors playing his younger self and his cousin. But there is more artifice at work than is at first apparent. Our initial impression of a documentary recreation by actors playing themselves, in the style of Close-Up, proves to be rather wrong. In the first place, I was surprised to learn that the ex-policeman is not in fact portraying himself but is played by an actor. So, I wonder about the cameraman called Zinal who accompanies the ex-policeman; I had assumed this was the film’s cinematographer (making an appearance in the mode of Raoul Coutard at the beginning of Le Mépris) but I now suspect this is an actor too. (I haven’t found any cast list, including that found on the Makhmalbaf Film House website, that’s detailed enough to throw any light on the matter.)
The film’s style is artfully and often very beautifully controlled, with a lot of play with off-screen sound (for example, the off-screen Makhmalbaf interviewing the on-screen young actor in the car, which rhymes with the scene appearing shortly before of the ex-policeman training his young actor, with only his voice being heard apart from brief entries into and exits from the frame); with long takes; and with very formally structured shots (the balance the ex-policeman and the actor provide on either side of the shot during their long conversation in the bedroom, or the way they sit framing the door when they get their free soup from a local woman).
The filmmaking is often decidedly non-naturalistic. A good example is the very beautiful long take of the tree-lined snow-covered street stretching into the distance, down which the ex-policeman storms in a huff. The camera holds on this image as we first hear Makhmalbaf’s off-camera conversation; see the cameraman go off in pursuit; and then, when he catches up with the ex-policeman, hear their conversation at some distance in front of us as clearly as Makhmalbaf’s original discussion that took place immediately behind the camera. No attempt is made to alter or adjust the sound levels to naturalistically represent the two different sound sources.
The very careful — and “unrealistic” — manipulation of the soundtrack here is an approach that is true of the film as a whole. It’s far more scripted and acted (and controlled by Makhmalbaf the director) than at first appears; the off-screen scene where Makhmalbaf vetoes the ex-policeman’s choice of an actor perhaps can stand for the control Makhmalbaf exercises throughout the film. And there’s a firm structure to the film, evidenced in the way that the separate narratives of the ex-policeman training his actor and Makhmalbaf training his two actors keep looping around to meet up. On two occasions the Makhmalbaf-actor and/or the cousin-actress come into scenes that we’ve already seen with the policeman-actor. (It’s the same looping-around effect that Gus Van Sant uses in Elephant and Last Days.)
The original Iranian title translates as “The Bread and the Flower-pot,” and in fact a piece of round flat Iranian bread and a flower-pot appear in the credit sequence at the start of the film. The two objects are then brought together, it seems casually, in one shot in a bakery towards the end of the film, and then they are joined together again, very deliberately, in the film’s final shot. Makhmalbaf uses these two objects for the kind of poetic-symbolic effect often favoured by Iranian filmmakers. The flower-pot is given associations with love and romance and the kind of naïve innocence that the young policeman projects. He is smitten with the young Makhmalbaf’s cousin (who unbeknownst to him is going to be used as a decoy in the attack on him) and has bought the flower-pot as a gift for her and as a means for him to make contact with her.
The bread, as an Iranian staple food, is a symbol of life-sustaining forces. There’s a deliberate irony in the way the young Makhmalbaf uses the bread to conceal the knife as he approaches the young policeman. And there’s a deliberate message on Makhmalbaf’s part when, in rehearsal, the young actor, with knife in one hand and bread in the other, breaks down into tears with a cry of “I can’t stab him,” throws the knife to the ground, and starts eating the bread.
But Makhmalbaf the director-in-the-film insists on a repeat performance, and the film reaches its climax as the usual long-take/wide-shot style is broken up into short, isolated, separate shots of each of the three protagonists: the young policeman, the young Makhmalbaf, and his young cousin. The ex-policeman has already primed the actor playing his younger self to rewrite history from his own perspective by having him rehearse pulling out his gun and shooting the girl when she approaches him. Now we have, intercut, shots of these three: the policeman waiting, the girl approaching, a close-up of the bread approaching too; the girl repeatedly asking her question, the policeman unbuckling his holster and starting to pull out his gun. But then all three meet in one final shot, as the flower-pot from one side of the screen meets the bread from the other in front of the standing figure of the girl. It’s Makhmalbaf’s own reckoning with his past, an explicit refutation of his past act, and a heart-felt paean to his now firmly-held idealistic humanism and pacifism.