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.
Kevin Smith likes to pretend he's just a regular guy from New Jersey. He likes the role so much that he's embodied it on-screen, as Silent Bob, in every film he's made: Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy. But it takes a highly irregular guy to make a film, lay bare the method behind it and suggest an appropriate standard of judgment, all at once, as Smith does at the beginning of Dogma.
Here is George Carlin (a hero to many regular guys from New Jersey), impersonating a prince of the church named Cardinal Glick. As the film starts, the cardinal is launching a new get-'em-back-in-the-pews initiative for today's American Catholics: the "Catholicism WOW" marketing campaign. The method, simply put, is to translate the message of the church into the words and images people already use. That's what artists within the church have always done--think of the different costumes, settings and even physiognomies they've given the Holy Family, across the centuries and continents--and that's also what Smith does in Dogma.
As for the critical standard, it's set through the bad example of Cardinal Glick, whose Catholicism WOW campaign retires the gloomy old image of the crucifix. In its place, Glick puts an image that he imagines will be more attractive to the public: the Buddy Christ, a grinning, blue-eyed surfer Jesus who winks broadly and gives you the thumbs-up. To Smith, this isn't a vernacular translation of the Gospel. It's corn, which insults Jesus and pop culture alike.
Dogma conveys the message of the church in the vernacular and gets its terms right. God's messenger (Alan Rickman) resembles a middle-aged British rock star who's a recovering alcoholic. The spawn of hell are teenage roller-hockey players with dim, glue-freak eyes. Other supernatural figures include a righteously pissed-off apostle who behaves like a stand-up comic (Chris Rock) and an immortal topless dancer (Salma Hayek) who seems to have wandered in from Christianity's Hellenistic background.
These figures begin to busy themselves in and about New Jersey because of the activities of a pair of fallen angels--Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. (How's that for having pop-culture perfect pitch?) Banished for all eternity to Wisconsin, the angels ache to return home and think they've found a way to do so, through a loophole in divine law that was carelessly opened by Cardinal Glick. Should they exercise the loophole, though, God's word will be made self-contradictory, and the universe will end. Someone must stop them--and the seemingly unlikely instrument chosen for the task is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a divorced, embittered yet stubbornly faithful Catholic in McHenry, Illinois, who works in an abortion clinic.
Some Catholics have protested against Dogma--pre-emptively, without bothering to see the movie--on the grounds that a film that makes a heroine of such a character must be meant as an insult to the faith. They might as well say Augustine disqualified himself from becoming a father of the church by writing the Confessions. All sorts of colorful people make their way into sacred history. I note, for the record, that Dogma affirms the divinity and unique salvific mission of Jesus, the efficacy of the sacraments in and of themselves and the Magisterium. The movie is therefore far more acceptable to Catholics than it is to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, animists of all nations and secular humanists.
As a member of one of the latter groups, I had my doctrinal disagreements with Dogma. I also had a very good time watching the film. Concede Smith his two main notions--that God alone has the right to judge human beings, and that God has a sense of humor--and you will probably find Dogma howlingly funny, thoroughly imaginative and (in the end) surprisingly sweet. The offense that the Jersey-centric Smith ignorantly gives to the State of Wisconsin, I leave to a future column, on great movies of the Midwest.