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Friday, July 21, 2000


Remembrances of revolutions past

It's always a dodgy prospect when a director decides to make a film about filmmaking; all too often it ends up as a bad case of overly self-conscious navel-gazing. Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, however, manages to take this premise and wring unique insight from it.

"A Moment of Innocence (Nun Va Goldun)" -- Makhmalbaf's astonishing semi-autobiographical film from 1996 is indeed about the making of a film. And yes, it does dwell on the process itself, and how filming inevitably warps any reality being portrayed. Makhmalbaf never settles for mere self-referentiality, though, finding much more to throw into the mix: self-reflection, political allegory, generational change and a sly sense of humor (which really singles him out from many of his talented, but oh-so-earnest contemporaries in Iran).

The film's story came from an actual incident in the director's past: As a young radical in the last days of the Shah's regime, Makhmalbaf attacked a policeman in an attempt to steal his weapon. The policeman wound up in the hospital, while Makhmalbaf ended up in jail for four years, freed only after the revolution. "A Moment of Innocence" begins some 20 years later, when the policeman unexpectedly shows up at a casting call for one of Makhmalbaf's films.

The film is a comedy of errors with serious undertones, as both men attempt to exorcise the demons of their pasts. The first irony comes from the fact that the ex-cop (played by Mirhadi Tayebi), the symbol of an oppressive regime to the young Makhmalbaf, looks the part -- a scowling ogre of a man -- but turns out to be a softy, with a surprisingly fragile ego.

Makhmalbaf decides to make a film of their violent encounter two decades earlier, and hires Tayebi to coach a young actor, the jovial Ali Bakhshi, in the cop role. In a very funny scene Tayebi storms off in a huff, upset that he can't have a handsome Tom Cruise type playing his younger self.

It turns out that a young woman aided Makhmalbaf in his attack (played here by Maryam Mohamad Amini, who looks like a young Juliette Binoche in a chador) by acting as a decoy. Poor Tayebi had been watching the girl for weeks, though, convinced her daily strolls were because she was interested in him. On the day he was attacked, he was holding a sad little plant as a gift for the girl.

Now that the film is being made, Makhmalbaf and Tayebi are both insistent on justifying their past actions and passing on their old passions and grudges, but the young cast members seem reluctant to resume this distant conflict. Tayebi, though, has instructed his protege to be holding his gun, not the plant, when the moment of truth comes: His intensity shows how much this betrayal still means to him. As two camera teams weave through a maze of arched streets and closed doorways, the film builds toward the climactic confrontation.

This may seem like filmmaking as therapy, re-creating the past in an attempt to understand it, but the good news is, Makhmalbaf does. Indeed, for the entire film, it seems that it's all being thrown together as it happens, in a rambling, off-the-cuff documentary way. It's only when you hit the searingly honest and profound final sequence that you realize this has all been meticulously plotted, or at least it appears to be. "A Moment of Innocence" closes with an image destined to be one for the ages.

"Gabbeh" is a very different film, both in tone and structure, so much so that it's hard to believe it was made by the same director and in the same year. Set amid the nomadic Kashgai tribes of the Zagros mountains, "Gabbeh" is a magical fable of love denied and found. The tale follows a tribe of shepherds and carpet weavers, and a winsome young woman named Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Djodat), whose father forbids her to see her lover, who appears only on horseback on distant horizons. As Gabbeh is repeatedly forbidden to marry, her thoughts turn to eloping, but she fears the wrath of her gun-wielding father.

This may seem like a simple fable -- and, indeed, can be enjoyed as such -- but the idea of a young woman recognizing that passion trumps patriarchy was one that left the mullahs fuming. "Gabbeh" was originally banned in Iran, until critical praise abroad and a (slightly) more liberal attitude by the censors allowed it to be shown.

Visually, "Gabbeh" is true to the film's tag line -- "Life is color" -- with an explosion of vibrant, painterly images: sun-kissed fields of flowers; rippling stream waters racing over intricately embroidered carpet designs; and the bold primary colors of the nomads' garb against the arid landscape. The film's characters even spring to life out of the fabric of one carpet, an homage to the tribal culture it documents.

Yet all this is political as well: The embrace of folk culture -- particularly, the women with their colorful clothes and full-throated singing -- was very politically incorrect, given the current extreme version of Islam that denies such sensual pleasures as beauty and song. It's also a reflection of an Iran that encompasses a greater history -- namely, that of Persia -- than the monolithic, fundamentalist Islamic view that dominates today.

"A Moment of Innocence" (Japanese title: "Pan to Uekibachi") and "Gabbeh" are playing at Sanbyakunin Gekijo in Suidobashi.

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