Tales Like Persian Carpets On Screen - "The Silence" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

There is a reason many people consider Iranian movies to be the most artistically adventurous being made anywhere today, and it has to do with the intensity with which that country's filmmakers probe the basic elements of the moviegoing experience. Among the recurrent themes are the relationships of actors to non-actors and of non-actors to fictional characters, the shadowy lines between fiction and documentary, and the ability of film to convey a firsthand experience of the physical world.

As "A Moment of Innocence" and "The Silence," two important films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, show, the exploration of such basics isn't a naive search for a lost innocence or for a primitive truth but a sophisticated effort to deepen and purify the cinematic experience. Most of all it is a spiritual quest, linked to Islamic belief but not necessarily dogmatic.

The two films, which begin separate engagements at the Walter Reade Theater today, are so different in visual style that they almost seem the work of two directors. The atmosphere of "A Moment of Innocence" is drab and wintry, that of "The Silence" almost radiantly sensuous.

"A Moment of Innocence," the deeper of the two, is a tricky Pirandellian meditation on memory, character and history that lures us into a Chinese-box-like world of contradictions and enigmas. In 1974, when Mr. Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old rebel protesting the Shah's regime, he stabbed and seriously injured a young policeman, Mir Hadi Tayebi, while trying to steal his gun and ended up serving six years in prison for the crime. Released after the Islamic revolution, he became a filmmaker. In 1994, while he was looking for nonprofessional actors to appear in his movie "Salaam Cinema," who should audition but Mr. Tayebi, now an actor?

"A Moment of Innocence," made in 1996, finds Mr. Makhmalbaf and Mr. Tayebi playing themselves in a movie in which the director seeks to reconstruct the events of 1974 that changed both their lives. Much of the film revolves around the choosing and coaching of young actors to portray their younger selves. As the lessons proceed and the moments leading to the stabbing are rehearsed, the director and the man he wounded turn out to have sharply differing visions of what took place.

The young woman whom Mr. Makhmalbaf used as a decoy to distract the policeman so he could steal the gun was the same woman who used to stop regularly at Mr. Tayebi's post and discreetly flirt with him, leading Mr. Tayebi to believe she was in love with him. Adding another wrinkle to this game of what-happened-back-then, the original young woman is now played by her teenage daughter (Maryam Mohammadamini).

By thoroughly confusing fiction and documentary, personal history and personal fantasy, "A Moment of Innocence" becomes a heady exploration of memory, personal associations and multiple realities. As Mr. Makhmalbaf and Mr. Tayebi meticulously coach the actors playing their younger selves, you come to realize the impossibility of filming an objective, accurate account of any past experience no matter how vividly remembered it may be.

Where "A Moment of Innocence" is almost forbiddingly austere, Mr. Makhmalbaf's 1998 film "The Silence," which follows the experiences of Khorshid (Tahmineh Narmatava), a 10-year-old blind boy living in a small town in Tajikistan, is a sensuous symphony of sound and color. Khorshid shares an apartment with his mother (his father has gone to Russia to find work), who earns a subsistence living catching fish. Both mother and son are on the verge of being evicted from their home for failure to pay the rent. What has kept them going is the pittance Khorshid makes tuning stringed instruments in the workshop of a gruff, bad-tempered craftsman. And when the boy loses his job, the mother and son find themselves out on the street.

The playful, at times sentimental film imagines Khorshid's interior world, one dominated by sound. When not guided around the city by Nadereh (Nadereh Abdollahyava), a patient young girl who works for the instrument maker, Khorshid has a tendency to get lost in the moment and follow whatever street music he hears. He is so obsessed with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that he asks every percussionist he comes across to play the famous opening figure.

The movie becomes more surreal as it goes along, and in one scene Khorshid wanders through an endless hall lined with percussionists tapping out the four-note figure that haunts him. As Khorshid's world is flooded with music that seems to surround him but really emanates from inside his head, the movie celebrates his ability to live in his imagination, and despite blindness and poverty, to feel tremendous exaltation.

Originally Published November 10, 1999

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