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Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Retrospective

Donato Totaro , dtotaro@hotmail.com

1997, septembre 18



A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Early in 1997 the CCA (Cinémathèque Canada) ran a near complete retrospective on Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. After viewing Gabbeh (1996) and The Peddler I was hooked and on my way to discovering a remarkable new cinema talent, or as I overheard a person say outside the CCA theatre, “ca c’est cinema d’auteur.” From what I’ve seen so far Mohsen is at least the equal of Abbas Kiarostami, and in terms of eclecticism, commands a much more varied cinematic style. It’s also apparent that the spirit of neo-realism and Zavattini’s ideals about making social cinema with as little “plot” as possible and about ordinary, everyday happenings and social actors lives on in Iranian cinema (Kiarostami included here). A Moment of Innocene is an excellent example of Makhmalbaf’s self defining term, “poetic realism.” The film, as are so many Iranian films, has a reflexive subject matter which reconstructs personal history and makes it into a poignant making-of film. The film is based on a real incident that took place in pre- revolution Iran when Mohsen was a anti-shah militant. The film replays a single event which occured 20 years ago, when Mohsen, using a girl as a decoy, disarmed and stabbed (not fatally) a police officer from the Shah’s regime. Both the actor playing the police officer and Makhmalbaf as himself coach their respective younger versions. At times the film ruptures linear temporality with events occuring out of sequence (like in Kiarostami’s Close-Up ). For example, 53:00 minutes into the film we see the young actor/officer, original older officer and cameraman rehearsing a scene. A funeral march walks past and the older man and cameraman join to help carry the coffin. The young officer places the potted plant he was holding onto a nearby sill and runs after them. When he returns the plant is missing. He asks a old passerby if he has seen the plant then runs off in its quest, finding it with a group of women outside a bakery. The incident appears complete and the scene cuts to another location. Approximately seven minutes later we return to the same space and see a girl pick up the potted plant from the sill. She runs out of the frame and seconds later we see the young actor/officer running back into the frame and discovering that the potted plant is missing. Here Makhmalbaf achieves a clever form of reflexivity by reminding us of the arbitrariness of continuity editing by the simple overlapping of a narrative event.


Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The film maintains its pseudo docu-drama veneer until the final ten or so minutes when the film’s symbolic meaning rises to the forefront. The two sets of characters symbolize the different value systems of the pre- and post-revolution generations. The scene they are recreating, as it occured in the past, should go as such: the young Mohsen, with his knife hidden under a loaf of bread, trails behind his cousin, who stops to ask the officer for the time. When the officer is distracted by the girl, Mohsen stabs the officer and disarms him. Both players are coached by their respective "real" alter-ego's. The young Makhmalbaf is instructed to stab the officer; the young officer is instructed to behave like an officer. The officer-turned actor poses behavioral problems throughout the film for director Mohsen with his tempermental threats to leave the film, first over the selection of which actor to play his younger self and later after he comes to the shocking realization that the girl he loved for twenty years was an accomplice to his stabbing. The older ex-officer returns to the past through film but plans to change the nature of the events, to redeem his past folly. Angered by the girl's complicity, he instructs his young self to shoot the girl when she asks him for the time, rather than follow historical course. The young man is unable to do the gesture, so the officer plays it out for him, with his violent act ending in a frozen image.

We now cut to the coaching of the young Makhmalbaf, a sensitve young man whose goal in life is no less than to “save humanity.” He buys the necessary bread, only to give most of it away to a street beggar with a child. One loaf remains. Makhmalbaf prepares to rehearse the scene, but his young actor breaks out in tears and is unable to go through with the violent event, even if it is fairy tale. The remaining scenes are played in close shot, with the older “real” set of characters no longer visible. We are now experiencing the event as from the perspective of the young, post-revolution generation. The scene begins, with the officer clutching his revolver and the girl slowly drawing nearer with the boy a few paces behind. She stops, asks him for the time; nothing happens and she repeats her question. We get a close-up of the hand on the gun holster and a fuller shot of the young Mohsen nearing with the bread in hand. A quick cut and slow motion speed blurs the action momentarily and then the image freezes with the action in mid-course: rather than gun/knife we see the officer handing over the potted plant and the young Mohsen handing over the loaf of bread. The replacement of the flower/bread for the gun/knife speaks a poetic volume on the changed generations and makes for a powerful conclusion. (Albiet controversial in Iran, where the film is seen as anti-revolutionary and is still currently banned.)

The Peddler is another kettle of fish, though I much enjoyed its amazing inventiveness and visual poetry. Three separate (though partly linked) stories relate the common theme of how people are always ready to capitalize on the miseries of others (also a central theme of The Cyclist ). The 1st story, "A Happy Child," based on a story by Italian neo-realist Alberto Moravio, is a stark blend of the comic and the horrific, set around the story of a poor husband and wife (cousins) with four crippled children who try to abandon their fifth child because they fear it will too become cripple if they keep it. (It is also implied that they can not afford a healthy child, perhaps because they get no compensation for it.) They style is very kinetic, with a constantly moving camera and quick, choppy edits. As in classic neo-realism, children play a central role, but there is no sentimentalism here. The couple try to drop the child off at a hospital for lost or mental children but the hospital can not accept the baby since it is neither. The mother goes off on her own with baby in hand and strolls into the ward for mentally ill babies and children. The scene is shot mainly from her subjective pov and what she/we see are strikingly horrific images of disfigured, physically mutated children. After many failed attempts the parents feel they have finally assured the baby’s good future by leaving it on a rich family’s lawn. The final shot is fitting of Browning’s Freaks (1932) for shock value. It begins on a close-up off the baby in what we assume is a comfortable crib. The camera cranes up to reveal a huge oversized baby head and continues upward to reveal the ward we saw earlier.

Part two, “The Birth of an Old Woman,” is the most highly stylized thing Makhmalbaf has directed to date. A man-child lives in a small city flat with a wheelchair bound mother who looks not a day over 105 and a striking cross between Grampa from the Texas Chainsaw clan and Ms. Bates (the white, bun-style hair and creaky rocking chairs also recall Psycho .) Makhmalbaf doesn’t underplay her monstrous, unreal appearance, but foregrounds it with extreme close-up's of her face that show cracks in her facial make-up. Her son is completely over the top, a Norman Bates on speed, angrily yelling at the top of his lungs and threatening to finally leave her mother to marry and settle down. The sequence is a tour-de-force of camera position and inventive shot designs. For example, the mother sees the world in black & white, perhaps suggesting her long ago world. One shot assumes a literal eye pov and slowly turns to black with a horizontal downward wipe. The son places mom on the balcony overlooking the busy street and goes out to buy her medicine and food. A nasty car accident keeps him away from home for an extended period. We cut back to a night shot of the mother still on the balcony. As a car drives by we cut the mother's black & white pov shot of a gaudy, white swan-shaped wedding car driving her just married son. Crosscuts between a grandfather clock slowly coming to a stop and the mother signal her death. The next scene has the heavily bandaged son in the apartment acting as if nothing has changed. The final shot is of the son venting a primal scream as he stares into a shattered mirror.

The third and least effective episode, “The Peddler,” is an exercise in character subjectivity. The story bridges the previous powerful ending by showing a gratuitous lamb slaughtering. The story follows a skiddish man who has witnessed a murder committed by an underground black market organization. Two henchmen find him and drive him to their boss. The man continually imagines his murder, only to cut back to a reality where he is still alive. This audience deception is carried on right up until the end, where he narrowly escapes from an impossble situation but stumbles, wounded, onto an eerie, isolated backstreet. The image is of three dead men, covered in icy white frost and speaking in a mechanized modulation, looking over him. He appears to be dying but, again, we are fooled by a cut back to his body lying at the previous location (only now he is dead). This segment recalls the similar play with subjectivity and death in Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1961).

The Cyclist is based on an real incident Makhmalbaf witnessed as a 10-year old boy, when a Pakistan refugee cycled for ten days non-stop to raise money for flood victims in Pakistan. In the film a poor Afghan man is reduced to performing a similar marathon act - riding a bicycle non-stop around a square for a full week- in order to raise money for his sick wife’s hospital treatment. Though the film is a wonderful reaffirmation of the human spirit, it is somewhat less interesting than the other films, partly because the subject matter wasn’t very cinematic. After all, how much variety can there be in a story where a man cycles in a small circle for one week! In keeping with Iranian cinema's predeliction for reflexivity, a scene from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They ? seen playing in a television bar foreshadows the film's plot and its theme of human fortitude.

The film again shows the Iranian debt to neo-realism in its structure and certain scenes. It parallels Bicycle Thieves in its scenes of a closely knit father and son walking through the city looking for a way to provide for the ill wife/mother. Some of the best moments are those where the father/son witness an old man’s pathetic suicide attempt by lying in front of the back wheel of a bus. Makhmalbaf milks every agonizing moment by crosscutting from the bus about to start to the father’s face. A third party sees the old man and saves his life, only to initiate a beating lesson which itself nearly kills the poor old man! A few spectators angrily throw money at the old man so that he won’t try it again. This gives our desparate hero an idea and in the next shot we see the father lying in front of the wheels! The level of desparation reflected by the suicide attempt recalls Umberto D (1951), where a poverty-stricken senior also resorts to throwing himself in front of a train as a remedy to his economic and moral decline (only to be saved by the thought of how his dog would get along without him.) The film ends with a low angle freeze frame of the victorious father on his bike (the freeze frame was also used to conclude A Moment of Innocence .

I also saw Close-up (1990) by Abbas Kiarostami starring Makhmalbaf in the true story of a poor man (Ali Sabzian) who impersonates director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to ingratiate himself into a rich household on the pretext that he wants to use them and their house in his next film. The film is not as interesting formally as some of Kiarostami's other works, but holds value in its subtle layering of how important a role cinema plays in Iran and the interfacing between reality and cinema. Kiarostami uses different film stock for the court scenes (grainy) and scenes at the house; and employs an inside-out time structure (similar to the scene described in Moment of Innocence). The film begins with a reporter driving to the house to inform the family about the imposter. When the reporter goes inside the camera remains outside with the cab driver and the two young officers in the back, lingering on their inconsequential dialogue. We then cut to a court scene. After a long court scene we cut backwards in time to the deception in process. The action of the opening scene returns as we see the reporter with two officers ringing the doorbell. The film concludes with the patient, kindly judge exonerating the imposter. The real Makhmalbaf meets the imposter, Ali Sabzian, and takes him on motorbike to the duped family to thank them. The imposter, in tears, hands flowers over to the man. Again, a freeze frame ends the film.