Bread and Flowers - "A Moment of Innocence" Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson Combustible Celluloid

Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "A Moment of Innocence" (1996) is being released in tandem with his "The Silence" (1998), but for the sake of clarity, I'll review them separately.

"A Moment of Innocence" plays less like a typical Mohsen Makhmalbaf film and more like one of his colleague and countryman Abbas Kiarostami's self-reflective films such as "And Life Goes On" (1991) and "Through the Olive Trees" (1994). It's a movie about cinema itself, though it's not like Hollywood films about cinema that simply make jokes about the business. Makhmalbaf's film is about how cinema captures life and makes something more out of it.

The backstory here is important. When Makhmalbaf was 17 years old, he was a revolutionary fighting against the Shah and, with the help of his girlfriend, he stabbed a cop and went to prison for it. Five years later, he got out and became a filmmaker. In 1996, Makhmalbaf invited the very cop he stabbed to participate in his newest film. The plot of "A Moment of Innocence" has the cop and Makhmalbaf playing themselves and making a film. They cast a pair of young actors to play themselves as youths and to re-enact the stabbing. For a time we alternately follow the two men and their young counterparts and we learn more about the event from different points of view. One detail comes up that is strikingly different in the two versions. As we get closer to the actual filming, the difference between movie and real life becomes blurred. When the film ends, it freeze frames on a particular image that sums everything up.

I usually prefer Abbas Kiarostami's films to those of Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami seems more in touch with cinema itself. His films are based in realism, but in the end become as cinematic and stylish as anything by Alfred Hitchcock. What makes him great is that these two styles are seamless and that the trick of blending them invisible. Makhmalbaf is more stylish, inventing potent and colorful images to fill his frame, but keeping his characters simple and universal. "A Moment of Innocence" is something of a departure for him. It reminded me of "Close-Up" (1990), a movie Kiarostami made about a real-life event that involved Makhmalbaf. It seems as if Makhmalbaf was inspired by that movie and wanted to respond with something in kind. But "A Moment of Innocence" is more than just a rip-off of someone else's good idea. It's an inspired movie on its own.

I highly recommend "A Moment of Innocence" as a good place to start with Makhmalbaf. I myself got off on the wrong foot with Gabbeh, a colorful and interesting but slightly pretentious fable released in 1997. "A Moment of Innocence" is by far the best Makhmalbaf film of the four I've seen. And in fact, I'm putting it directly into my "classics" section.

Originally Published March 10, 2000

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