"A Moment of Innocence" Review
By Jeremy Heilman Movie Martyr
Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "A Moment of Innocence" is a spin-off from his earlier project "Salaam Cinema." That film was, in simplest terms, a documentary of a casting session that turned out to be the work itself, but it was far from simple in execution. Quite similar in its deceptive effortlessness, "A Moment of Innocence" is the end result of an unlikely meeting between Makhmalbaf and Mirhadi Tayebi, a policeman who the director stabbed twenty years earlier as a protest against the Shah's regime. Tayebi, who answered "Salaam Cinema's" open casting call, was seen in that film saying that he wanted to play a heroic figure, despite his brutish looks. This film restages the meeting and takes flight as the director and actor decide to recast and recreate the attack that effectively ended Tayebi's police career and landed Makhmalbaf in prison.
Unlike "Salaam Cinema," which was a documentary (albeit one with the deck stacked against its subjects), "Moment" is a fictional film, although the cast is playing themselves (except when they are cast in the film within the film). As such, the staging of many of the scenes becomes inherently distracting. Whenever the actors are pretending not to notice the camera, we're made all too aware of it, since the movie's self-reflexive nature heightens the artificiality of the situation, but doesn't seem to encompass the fact that much of the action is scripted. Where "Salaam" consistently demonstrated the way that the unscripted complexities of real people could best almost any fabricated drama, in "Moment" Makhmalbaf tries to make a scripted statement about the nature of movies, memory and regret. Though he profoundly addresses these and other themes such as the generation gap and the effectiveness of political violence, he doesn't skirt between the realms of fact and fiction quite as effectively as he managed to in "Salaam Cinema".
Still, there are moments here that are phenomenal. For example, Mirhadi Tayebi's realization that he's wasted twenty years of regret over a girl he never pursued comes as a shock, even though the audience has been aware of her role in the attack. The final action, too, forces a reinterpretation on lamentable events, as the director aligns his own past with that of his succeeding generation and their shared country. There exists a thread in the film that examines how the various participants in its creation realize the extent to which film matters. Its very concept is a restaging of an event that's been etched in the past, but both director and actor (i.e. assailant and victim) recognize that cinema has the ability to absolve a past wrong simply by portraying it. The young actors, too, recognize the importance of the film, and even though they are merely actors playing a part, the recognize the moral weight involved in that process. Perhaps it's only an echo of the masterpiece that was its predecessor, lacking the suspense and immediacy of that film's documentary style, but even though Makhmalbaf's own screen time is surprisingly brief, there's no denying that A Moment of Innocence is the very definition of personal filmmaking, completely unimpeded by, though not unaware of, the traditional definitions of what constitutes a film.
Originally Published August 1, 2005
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