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Darren H

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

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Since we don't have a dedicated thread . . .

In 1974, Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a young police officer while attempting to steal his gun. Makhmalbaf was only seventeen at the time but had already been actively involved for a number of years in organized resistance to the Shah's government. He served four-and-a-half years of his sentence before being released in 1979, soon after the Islamic revolution. During his time in prison, Makhmalbaf shifted his focus from political action to the arts, and over the next decade he established himself as an important writer and filmmaker, gaining a large audience both in Iran and abroad. One of his earliest films, The Cyclist (1987), is number 50 on the Arts and Faith Top 100 and is a key movie in what has since become known as the New Iranian Cinema movement. Close Up (1990, #34 on the list) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, #57), both by Abbas Kiarostami, are other seminal works.

Nearly twenty years after the stabbing incident, the police officer Makhmalbaf had wounded showed up at the director's door, asking to be given a role in his next film. That encounter is the inspiration for A Moment of Innocence, which reenacts their experience from both men's points of view. A Moment of Innocence is not at all a typical historical film, however. Rather than simply setting his film in 1974, Makhmalbaf takes us behind the scenes of how such a film might be made. Like Stanley Donen's Singing in the Rain (1954), Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), and Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep (1996), A Moment of Innocence is one of the great movies about the process of making movies.

A Moment of Innocence is also a classic postmodern text. One of the central concerns of postmodernism is the unknowability of a historical truth once it's been filtered through a culture saturated with images -- movies, tv, photographs, advertisements. To borrow Stephen Colbert's wonderful neologism, to acknowledge the "truthiness" of an event is to open all kinds of philosophical, political, and theological cans of worms. Like many other postmodern artists, Makhmalbaf responds by being self-reflexive and ironic and by balancing dry humor with sincerity.

For example, early in A Moment of Innocence, the policeman—now in his mid-40s, tall, gangly, with deepset eyes, an expressionless face, and thick eyebrows—is given the opportunity to cast the actor who will play the younger version of himself. After briefly interrogating the ten or so hopefuls, he chooses the best looking and most charming one, a boy with fair skin and blue eyes. Minutes later, the policeman storms off the set after Makhmalbaf (playing himself) rejects his choice and selects, instead, a less attractive actor. (In a related joke, the policeman often expresses his frustration over being cast repeatedly as the villain in other films.) The temptation to idealize our stories and ourselves, to rewrite history, to accept our subjective memories as truth is strong, particularly in an age that prizes beauty and commercial success above all.

Ultimately, it's impossible for us as viewers to know exactly where the lines between fact and invention, documentary and fiction are being blurred here. Even the most fundamental question -- Is this an accurate representation of what happened that day in 1974? -- can't be answered. But, finally, the "truthiness" of A Moment of Innocence is beside the point. In the closing minutes of the film, when we finally see the encounter between the two young men (teenaged boys, really) we're made suddenly aware of how both lives were ruptured that day and all irony drops from the film's title. Makhmalbaf manages what few other filmmakers have been able to accomplish: he captures the sorrowful tragedy of any lapse into violence.

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Fascinating, thanks for that.

So where do we see it?


In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Sounds similar to Close-Up. Is "documentaries that aren't really documentaries but some of it's real so it's kind of like a documentary but you can't tell where the real ends and the fiction begins" a big theme in Iranian cinema?


It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Tyler, A Moment of Innocence and Close Up are far and away my favorite films of the New Iranian Cinema -- of the limited number I've seen, at least. If you've seen Close Up then you know that they kind of overlap, too, as Makhmalbaf is an important "character" in Kiarostami's film. All of those films borrow from the Italian Neo-realist tradition, where you basically had directors leaving the studios (which were decimated in WWII) and making fiction films using documentary techniques -- handheld cameras, natural light, non-professional actors (in many cases), etc. So even when the films aren't deliberately blurring the fiction/documentary lines, as these two do, they often blur the lines formally.

Stef, New Yorker put out A Moment of Innocence on DVD, although it looks like it's gone out of print. I might be able to, um, find a copy if you're interested.

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The approach of this film and Close-Up to "truthiness" makes me uneasy. I have used Close-Up in various teaching settings because there really aren't many better films about religion, cinema, and perspective out there. (If A Moment of Innocence didn't cost a hundred bucks, then it would work almost as well.) But in terms of the way post-modernism conceives of the forms of power inherent to different storytelling devices, I always wonder where these films locate us - as western viewers of complex local civil and religious issues.

The quasi documentary/fiction vibe here expresses the experience of these filmmakers in coming to grips with the possibility that a totalizing Iranian world-view may not be as humane or dignifying as their culture would have them believe. So these films take on an additional layer of self-reflection that runs parallel to our experience of watching these films for the first time. They have a post-critical naivete built right into them.

But I wonder what this means. Essentially, these cases of quasi-documentary have already done our initial thinking for us. In a very unique way, they immediately direct our first response to their material. By doing so, they contain a back door form of auteur power or control that is what really energizes these films.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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By doing so, they contain a back door form of auteur power or control that is what really energizes these films.

To quote Bruce Cockburn:

Don't let the system fool you

All it wants to do is rule you

Pay attention to the poet

You need him and you know it

That's a great point, M, and it's one of the reasons I called A Moment of Innocence a classic postmodern text. What I'm implying there is probably lost on every reader but me, but I do have a kind of hierarchy in mind. I think of the great postmodern artists as performing essential and potentially radical acts of criticism in their work. I'd include Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami on that list. I have to run to a meeting, but long story short: I trust the poets.

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You know what? I can dig that. I guess there is a sense in which that kind of auteur "control" is similar to the way some fine artists use composition to direct our attention to certain facets of their work.

Just happy to know that my power meter isn't haywire.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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As I was walking to my meeting, it occurred to me that it might be instructive to think of these films as essays. Is there a significant difference between what you're calling "auteur control" and "making an argument"?

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As I was walking to my meeting, it occurred to me that it might be instructive to think of these films as essays. Is there a significant difference between what you're calling "auteur control" and "making an argument"?

I think so, because we already have an odd family of films that we generally think of as essay films. Perhaps there is something essay-like about the way these films construct our post-critical naivete for us, but it is different from the way Chris Marker juxtaposes actual footage of events, or the way Ackerman slowly builds an argument or mood through long takes of actual events. In both Marker and Makhmalbaf, we are being implored to see a certain way, but there is something much different about the way they make us do actually that. And frankly, Makhmalbaf and Kairostami are better at it. (And by "better," I mean that they wield their power as auteurs more efficiently.)

That said, I can easily imagine Close-Up in the form of The New Yorker essay or This American Life radio script.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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What a powerful ending. I'm going to have to rewatch this film in order to really wrestle with everything that's happening going on, but for an initial reaction, I can say that I found this much more affecting than Close-Up, which is the closest film I can compare it to. A great film about filmmaking too.

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> The approach of this film and Close-Up to "truthiness" makes me uneasy.

Interesting to reread this thread a decade later. I've been thumbing through Jonas Mekas's Movie Journal and, by coincidence, last night I read his transcript of a roundtable conversation with Rossellini around the time of the release of The Rise of Louis XIV. Good stuff from Rossellini:

Quote

Neorealism is an effort to discover the truth. And the older I get, the less I know, the crazier I get. I don't understand things. So I am making inquiries into things, I am trying to learn. . . . I am not against using cinema verite techniques to document, to record life scientifically. I asked Jean Rouch if that's what he wanted. No, he answered, I want to do creative work. That's what I am against and it's here that the discussion begins. Cinema verite techniques should not be used to falsify the truth. They should be used to educate. . . . I want to relate some of my enthusiasm for the search for the truth.

 

Edited by Darren H

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That is a good find. I am a bit loathe to see these decade old threads pop up, as I probably disagree with my posts above. A decade later I am on board with anyone using any tools at their disposal to get at the truth. We can do the work of sorting out their work in conversation.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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