In the remarkable opening moments of a 1995 film by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a cameraman sits on the roof of a car as it makes its way slowly through a mob of Tehrani males--most of them thin, mustachioed, hungry-eyed. The camera records, the throng pushes and swells, and soon a near-riot breaks out as pieces of paper are tossed over the bobbing heads and the crowd surges forward to catch them, a vast field of upthrust arms flailing in furious unison. A needy-looking mass of women in black chadors also grabs at the papers, and soon the sex-segregated horde has literally stormed the gates of a palace and is stampeding onward, trampling and nearly injuring in the process several of its members who have fainted.
For an American viewer--and, I'd wager a cautious guess, for native Persians themselves, since Makhmalbaf has stated in various interviews that he makes movies first and foremost for his own people, and not for export to the West--the sight of these desperate multitudes conjures instant visions of the angriest days of the Iranian Revolution: the livid, effigy-burning demonstrators who surrounded the U.S. embassy during its prolonged takeover, the pandemonium that broke out at Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 funeral as his body was stripped of its shroud and swept above a churning sea of hysterical mourners, and so on.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Makhmalbaf is playing with the audience and its memories of this period, just as he's playing rather cruelly with the 3,000 eager souls who've assembled on this day--all, it turns out, in response to a newspaper notice announcing an audition for actors to appear in a movie by ... Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the most popular film makers in the Islamic Republic today. The scraps they're all pushing and shoving to get are no more than job applications.
Makhmalbaf calls Salaam Cinema a tribute to the centenary of the movies, though in fact it takes more startling shape as a sophisticated gloss on the nature of performance, a barbed attack on the abuses that come with absolute power, and a wryly metaphysical meditation on the relationship between the one and the many. Somewhere between a happening and an auto-da-fé, this disturbing and funny film manages to comment more devastatingly than almost any I know on the double-edged ability of this particular art form to redeem and corrupt. Throughout, Makhmalbaf parodies himself in the role of the Almighty Director, at one point even taunting a few aspiring young actresses by demanding to know, "Would you rather be an artist or a humane person?"
For reasons probably more economic than political, Salaam Cinema has never been distributed in the United States, but I describe it at such length here because it serves as a telling introduction to Makhmalbaf's steep and fascinating filmic universe. More important still, a chance meeting that occurred during the filming of Salaam Cinema gave way to the director's next movie, a small masterpiece from 1996 called A Moment of Innocence, which is currently enjoying short runs in various American cities, and which manages to push the dark lessons of Salaam Cinema into territory much more hopeful and expansive.
Shot on less than a shoestring in various snowy Tehran neighborhoods, in the modest, naturally lit manner of most of Makhmalbaf's films, which he also writes and edits himself, A Moment of Innocence is at first glance "just" another movie about the movies. But the longer one watches, the better one grasps that, for Makhmalbaf, the movies contain all of life.
This is, of course, a far cry from the ruling Ameri-can idea of a movie as the Great Escape, a cautiously scripted and photographed affair, designed to make gobs of money and flatter its audience's assumptions. A Makhmalbaf picture is something far more elusive and challenging, a kind of shifting arrangement of two-way mirrors, in which the audience beholds itself from numerous, often startling, angles, while also seeing beyond that reflection to the director's own world--a place where rigid Western distinctions between public and private, belief and doubt, fact and fiction, tradition and innovation simply no longer apply.
In a more basic way, A Moment of Innocence also charts the gradual process of ideological moderation that over the past few decades has gripped Makhmalbaf and, at the same time, much of Iran.
Born in 1957 or 1952, depending on which sources one consults, Makhmalbaf grew up poor in Tehran. As a young man, he was a devout Muslim, and according to the faintly fanciful legends that have since sprung up around him, he once refused to speak to his grandmother for several days after she admitted she had gone to the movies. He, it is said, did not see a film until he was in his 20s. By then, though, Makhmalbaf had already experienced enough high historical drama to fill a David Lean epic or two: A major turning point came at age 17 when, as a radical opponent of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's regime, he stabbed a policeman and tried to steal his gun. Shot in the course of the struggle, Makhmalbaf was sent to prison, where he was tortured and sentenced to death by firing squad.
But then came the revolution and his release, which was followed by a period of feverish artistic activity. As one of the founders of the Islamic Propagation Organization, Makhmalbaf wrote essays, short stories, plays, criticism, and even a religious diatribe against women appearing onstage. At this point, he also began to write and direct movies, the earliest examples of which were screened, of all places, in mosques.
Since then, he has gone on to make some 17 movies, evolving in the process from die-hard supporter of the clerics to fairly outspoken critic of their pervasive control. Several of Makhmalbaf's films, including A Moment of Innocence, have been banned in his own country, while in the West, in Europe especially, he has so far mostly been upstaged by his justly celebrated countryman, the leading figure of this Iranian new wave, Abbas Kiarostami. Ironically enough, Makhmalbaf is best known abroad not as a director, but for the role he played in a Kiarostami film, the brilliant and often heartbreaking Close-Up, which explores the actual case of an unemployed film buff who passed himself off to a middle-class Tehran family as Makhmalbaf. So intense was his identification with the director's work, the imposter seemed honestly to have felt he was no longer playing a part.
Perhaps it was a similar sense of connection and despair that drew one odd-looking loner to try his luck at the open-call audition that became Salaam Cinema. With a skull slightly too big for his body, a protruding brow, sunken eyes, and the gentle-giant's bearing of a swarthy Boris Karloff, this shy yet hulking figure was the policeman Makhmalbaf stabbed as a young radical. Now out of work and clearly still traumatized by the violent incident, he arrived at the audition hoping to win a part in Makhmalbaf's film.
From this lopsided reunion came A Moment of Innocence, the director's comic, sad, and remarkably tender attempt to recreate the events surrounding the stabbing and, by doing so, to come to terms with their legacy. Makhmalbaf appears once again as himself and casts the former policeman as--the former policeman. The two of them spend the movie preparing to make a movie about this central incident in both of their lives.
Before they can begin, they must cast fresh-faced actors to play their younger selves--and immediately the poignancy and weird humor of the situation become clear, as the literal-minded cop insists that he is the only actor suited to play himself as a young man. When this doesn't work, he demands they give the role to the most handsome teenager who has come to try out.
The policeman eventually agrees to a less glamorous stand-in, and for the role of young Makhmalbaf, a slender, sensitive-looking boy with the slightest peach-fuzz mustache is selected, not for physical but for psychological reasons: He says in his audition that he wants to "save mankind." Now each couple sets out on its own to prepare for the film. Ostensibly the older men will coach the younger through their roles, telling them where to stand and what to say. In some more essential sense, though, as Makhmalbaf and the policeman retrace their fateful footsteps, they are also rethinking the choices they made on that day.
For all its farcical overtones, the film has the haunting outline of an obsessive memory, or recurring dream, an event locked in time, to which one returns and returns in self-flagellating hopes that compulsive recollection might somehow change its inevitable outcome. As in the Persian and Arabic narrative poetry that the director has cited as the primary influence on his own movie making, the real here gives rise to fantasy and fantasy then hovers, shimmering, above the real; in the process, both are profoundly altered.
Delicately, often elliptically, Makhmalbaf manages to ask what it means to be an actor, to play a part, not just in the movies, but in society. As a young man, Makhmalbaf played a radical; now he plays a film director, just as the policeman played expertly the role of policeman--until, that is, the few seconds when he flubbed the part. Because he was distracted by a girl who passed by every day and with whom he'd fallen in love, his gun was grabbed. (As we learn in the course of the film, this was no accident: The girl was Makhmalbaf's cousin, girlfriend, and accomplice.) In an instant, the cop's life was, by his own definition, ruined. Some of the spookiest scenes in the movie are those where he demonstrates for his young stand-in how to guard a general's house, how to salute, how to goose-step. Watching him perform these shah-era military tasks with a perfectly straight face and back, it's plain that he thinks this was the role of his lifetime. Now that the show's over, the man feels he has nothing to live for.
But Moment is not merely some Stanislavskian riff on the challenge of playing a small part in history. It's the director's earnest attempt to extend the reaches of his own sympathetic imagination--to try to understand a man he once risked his life to stab. Empathy, the desire for meaning, and a subtle, probing sense of self are woven together here in Makhmalbaf's complex yet somehow direct answer to his own question: Would you rather be an artist or a humane person? ¤