When people label a film "great," the usual effect is to close off a discussion that ought to be opening. But when the film was made in Western Asia, cheaply and under threat of censorship, by a guy with so marketable a name as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a critic has no need to be delicate. Let the discussion begin with the obvious: A Moment of Innocence is a great film.
I'm even tempted to say it's one of the key artworks of our time. Half documentary and half conjuring trick, A Moment of Innocence transforms a past act of political violence into a present-day vision of generosity, in which gifts are offered, veils are removed and jaws drop all around. This is as much magic as any film can work--and it seems to be done right before your eyes, as you watch the movie being made.
At the film's core is a bit of autobiography. In 1974, when he was 17 and working to overthrow the Shah of Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf helped organize an attack on a police station. He planned to stab a cop and make away with his gun; but in the event, he accomplished only the first half of his goal. Makhmalbaf spent the next five years in prison, gaining release when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power.
Two decades later, the man whom Makhmalbaf had stabbed reappeared in his life. Mirhadi Tayebi, no longer a cop, came to the open casting call that Makhmalbaf held for his 1994 documentary Salaam Cinema. If you've seen that picture, you've watched a snippet of Tayebi's screen test. He's the man with the mug like Frankenstein's monster, who earnestly asks to play romantic leads.
At the start of A Moment of Innocence, Makhmalbaf transposes his re-encounter with Tayebi into the realm of fiction. You see the ex-cop come trudging unannounced to Makhmalbaf's home in search of a film career, only to have his knock answered by the director's young daughter. She cracks the door just enough to peer up at the stranger, tell him her father isn't home and then engage Tayebi in a rambling conversation he doesn't want, about homework. Seen from the middle distance--the camera, unmoving, is set far enough back to show both figures in full--the man who once aroused hatred and fear in Makhmalbaf now appears as a supplicant, deferring with all the patience he can muster to a little girl.
Out of this droll encounter grows the project Makhmalbaf "documents" in A Moment of Innocence. At a distance of twenty years, he will make a film about his attack on the policeman. Tayebi won't get to act in this film; but he will serve, in effect, as an assistant director, hired to coach the young man chosen to play him.
Immediately, Tayebi takes offense and stalks away. Having imagined himself being played by a big, handsome kid, he's hurt when Makhmalbaf instead casts gangly young Ammar Tafti. With more difficulty than he'd expected, Makhmalbaf coaxes Tayebi to come back, to get Ammar outfitted in an old-style cop's uniform and begin teaching him the drill. The uniform is a bit of a problem. The only available cap is too big; it bobbles on Ammar's head while he's trying to march. Even so, Tayebi takes a liking to the quiet, solemn boy, who seems eager to please, or perhaps terrified.
Makhmalbaf, meanwhile, is busy selecting a 17-year-old to play himself. We see the casting call--or, rather, the group interview--at which the director tests various young men by asking if they hope to change the world. No, says one. The world is a big place; it's plenty just to lead a decent life and keep things going. Makhmalbaf dismisses that candidate. He chooses Ali Bakhshi, who says he feels called to help everyone and make life better. Soon Ali is driving around Teheran in Makhmalbaf's car, soaking up monologues about prerevolutionary times and helping the director cast the third major role.
It seems there was also a young woman involved in the attack. She had the job of distracting Tayebi, so Makhmalbaf could sneak up with the knife. Who can Makhmalbaf recruit for the part? His first choice won't even come out of the house to talk with him. (In the days of the Shah, women fought for the Islamic revolution. Today, they hesitate to appear on camera.) But eventually Makhmalbaf finds Maryam Mohamadamini, who not only consents to appear in the film but even lets the camera follow her around after school, as she walks through the market chatting goofily with her sort-of-boyfriend.
Now everything is in place for a rehearsal of the attack--and everything falls apart. These young people! Ali turns out to be so tenderhearted that he breaks down during the first run-through. Makhmalbaf has to shout at him: "You say you want to make the world better? Then you have to stab! Stab!" In a parallel scene, Ammar takes instruction in violence from Tayebi, who has learned something unexpected about the long-ago attack and is now enraged. As Ammar goes white-faced, Tayebi demonstrates very convincingly how to empty his gun, and into whom.
Such is the uncontrollable mess in Makhmalbaf's hands as filming begins. Cameras follow the young people through covered streets as they make their way toward an encounter that either will or will not duplicate an older generation's murderous grudges. What you see at this point is wholly real, wholly fictive and completely unpredictable. Only a miracle could resolve the tension--and that's precisely how the film ends, with cloths whipped back in a flourish and a vision of astonishment revealed.
Actually, it's just a tableau, with three kids playing dress-up. But that gawkiness, or innocence if you will, is part of the world of hope that's summed up in the final shot--a world of hunger satisfied, love ventured, women emerging into the light. Write to me at once if you see another film with so urgent and complete an image of people's hurts, fears, needs and dreams at the end of our bloody century.
Don't even write. Come straight to my door and knock.