Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Iran, the mid-1990s. A middle-aged man visits the home of the film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Given the wrong address, he is redirected to the correct house. Makhmalbaf’s young daughter, Hana, explains he is not home. The man reveals that he was a policeman during the reign of the Shah, and that Makhmalbaf, then a militant, stabbed the policeman. Makhmalbaf begins to make a film about the incident, which happened 20 years ago. Makhmalbaf casts an actor to play the young version of himself, but the policeman initially refuses to accept the actor chosen to play him, threatening to resign from the film.
The policeman coaches and directs his own actor, despite the actor finding it sometimes difficult to take it seriously. The policeman reveals that he had fallen in love with a women who had asked him the time every day, which turned out to be an accomplice of Makhmalbaf’s. At this moment, a woman genuinely asks the actor, dressed as the policeman for the time. Makhmalbaf coaches his own actor and tells him his own side of the incident. The actor is in love with a young woman and asks her to play the role of his accomplice. It is then revealed that she is the woman who had asked the time just before. Makhmalbaf then films the pivotal scene of the stabbing, which initially the actors find difficult, but finally ends not quite according to plan.
Alongside Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the most well-known and well-respected film director in post-revolutionary Iran. In ‘Close Up’ (1990), directed by Kiarostami, an incident in the past relating to Makhmalbaf was retold – the moment a rather dejected man impersonated Makhmalbaf and acquired the trust of a Tehran family, in order to feel self-respect and self-importance – in a mixture of documentary and fiction. ‘A Moment of Innocence’ is cut from similar cloth. During the filming of ‘Salaam Cinema’ (1995), a film that began as one project and eventually turned into another (he advertised the audition for his new film in the press – the film became an account of the casting process), the policeman that Makhmalbaf stabbed during the anti-Shah protests in the late-70s had auditioned, which inspired Makhmalbaf to direct a film about this incident, which it emerges that the director had somehow forgotten but the policeman certainly hadn’t.
From the start, when the policeman meets Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Hana, we sense he has remaining psychological issues resulting from this incident. Just watch how he throws the incident into the conversation immediately to a girl who can solely ask “why do you want to be an actor?”, as if she understands. In answer to her own question, he cites private reasons, which later become more apparent. In another example of the self-reflexive nature of the film (see the reference to ‘Salaam Cinema’ above for another), and indeed post-revolutionary Iranian cinema as a whole, the policeman’s reasons almost echo those of the Makhmalbaf imposter in ‘Close Up’. For both, it’s almost a matter of life and death. As the policeman mentions to Zinal, the director’s assistant, his honour is at stake if the film doesn’t fully represent the incident. For him it’s a cathartic moment. He’s been adrift for 20 years, he resigned and no-one has since felt sorry for him. This is an opportunity to rediscover his life. In terms of preparing actors, the policeman is afforded far more screen time than Makhmalbaf, and the policeman demands accuracy with far greater conviction than the director.
This is a film about memory and how different participants involved in an incident remember it. There is no definitive truth as such. In their recounting of events to their respective young selves, both the policeman and Makhmalbaf mention a woman whose role in the incident differed according to who tells their story. For the policeman, the woman who asked him the time every day was someone he fell in love with and intended to give a flower to. Unbeknown to him though, she was Makhmalbaf’s cousin and accomplice. The woman briefly appears in the film as well. Makhmalbaf asks whether her daughter can play the younger version of her for the film. She refuses, explaining that this was a long time ago and that she like Makhmalbaf no doubt is politically deradicalised.
An incident that was caused by political volatility is now filmed again almost as a moment of rapprochement. The brilliant final sequence rewrites history in an attempt for both protagonists to come to terms with events. The policeman and the actor rehearse the scene where the girl approaches him, with the policeman as himself and the actor playing the girl. Instead of retelling events as they occurred, the policeman pulls his gun as soon as she arrives, before she says a word. It’s as if this is what he thinks he ought to have done all along and that his life would not have been cut adrift for the last two decades had he done so. When the scene is shot for “the film”, we have the girl repeatedly asking “what is the time?”, with the young Makhmalbaf not far behind, his knife concealed by a piece of bread. The young policeman immediately fumbles for his gun. The anxious dread of this scene is then cut by the freeze-frame shot of the young policeman handing the flower, not reaching for his gun, and the young Makhmalbaf handing the bread rather than the knife to the girl. This poetic symbolism can be seen as a cathartic moment not just for the two protagonists but also for this generation of young Iranians – the young policeman and Makhmalbaf both change the “script” so to speak, unprompted.
‘A Moment of Innocence’ is a sometimes complex but always involving film about memory, guilt and also cinema itself (a favourite subject of post-revolutionary Iranian directors). There’s a significant amount of artificiality involved and a deconstruction of the film making process, which begins with the opening use of the clapperboard (repeated several times during the film when “filming” occurs) and narrated titles. The use of sound is highly inventive. During an argument during casting, the policeman walks off the set and leaves down a long road, pursued by Zinal. Despite being almost out of shot, their conversation is just as audible as that between Makhmalbaf and his own actor who would be positioned “behind the camera”. There’s a rich sense of humour at work too; when the woman whom the young Makhmalbaf loves leaves after they meet, she unwittingly asks the young policeman the time – to which the real policeman exclaims it was just like the original incident! This is very impressive personal film making, constantly blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between cinema and documentary.