A Moment of Innocence ★★★★½

When he was a teenage militant and campaigning against the Shah’s regime, Mohsen Makhmalbaf tried to wrestle the gun off a police officer and in the tussle stabbed him with a knife. He was sentenced to prison and was only released in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Twenty years later he made The Moment of Innocence, a reconstruction of the event…or maybe it is a construction of a reconstruction of the event. A film about history, our relationship with the past, our understanding of our past actions. It is also a film about filmmaking. It opens with the former policeman (Mirhadi Tayebi) arriving at Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s house; Makhmalbaf is not there, but the policeman leaves a message with Makhmalbaf’s daughter (if she is actually one of Makhmalbaf’s daughters, presumably she is Hana): he is now an actor and is looking for work. A Moment of Innocence then cuts forward: a film is to be made about the incident where Makhmalbaf stabbed the policeman and they are now casting the leading two roles: Makhmalbaf auditions some youngsters for the role of his young self and choses an idealistic young man who says his ambition is to change the world: he is chosen because he is close to the young Makhmalbaf in character; then we watch the policeman casting his young self and he chooses a handsome young man; in the end the assistant director, following Makhmalbaf’s instructions, overrules the choice. Questions are quickly raised about the status of what we are watching. The film shows the policeman searching for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, in reality Makhmalbaf searched for the policeman. While watching the film I naively presumed Mirhadi Tayebi was the policeman involved in the past incident – his primitive acting might make us believe that – but I have no reason to believe that is the case. Makhmalbaf plays himself…or does he? Does he just enact the director’? It is all filmed very simply and A Moment of Innocence is often compared to a documentary or called a docudrama, but the central narrative, the making of the film, is not documenting a previous event: it is a fiction about filming an historical event. The film moves between and mixes different levels of fiction and documentation creating what might be called a complex uncertainty. (And it can be taken as evidence to support Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion from over 60 years ago that there is no essential difference between fiction and non-fiction film, between fiction and documentary.) And questions are raised about the process of filmmaking: the film we watch being made is a collaborative exercise, the policeman being an authority on his part of the narrative…except he is not: his vision of past events is rejected by the director: the collaboration is a fiction and is shown to be a fiction. As the film continues we see the policeman with his young self (Ali Bakshi), instructing him in how to act as one of the Shah’s police, but also talking and explaining his past life, notably his love for the young woman who passed him each day and asked him the time – in these dialogues he is conversing with the performer who is going to act him, but also, it seems, with his past self. And we see the director with the performer who will enact him (Ammar Tafti) – one of their tasks is to find a young woman to play the director’s cousin who helped him in the scheme to take the policeman’s gun. They first visit the director’s cousin, hoping that her daughter can play the role (and there is an intriguing moment when the daughter and the young director briefly meet and they fall into the dialogue of the past, using the words of the director and his cousin); when this falls through they recruit the young actor’s cousin (Maryam Mohamadamini): their relationship echoes that of the director and his cousin, but importantly takes on a life of its own: it reflects and enacts the past relationship of director and cousin, but isn’t contained by it. Despite the simplicity of staging (or maybe partly because of it), A Moment of Innocence creates a complex and fascinating narrative structure, one that is constantly questioning its own certainties and methods, but it should be emphasised that the film also creates a complex structure of emotion. This is partly because of the vividness of the five characters, creating five emotional centres for the film (although, interestingly, the least vivid is the director played by Mohsen Makhmalbaf – he is the most important character in terms of narrative, but less vivid in terms of emotional presentation). The young director, for instance, begins to feel emotion and uncertainty at the violent attempt to disarm the policeman: the film presents the emotion of the young director, a fictional character, while, presumably, also presenting the emotion of Makhmalbaf when responding to his past actions. When the policeman realises that the woman he was in love with and had been searching for over the past 20 years was in league with the director, that she was part of his plan, a distraction, he is overwhelmed by emotion and almost leaves the (fictional) film: I found this both comic and deeply moving, his past certainties collapsing. The film is often talked about in terms of reconciliation, the final frozen image of the flower and the bread being symbolic of this reconciliation, but I find this a little vague…or maybe this reading is too precise, failing to acknowledge the film’s ambiguity: yes, the final images freezes the attack, in a way rewriting the past, but it also doesn’t, the past remaining: the freezeframe is a moment of wishful thinking, an attempt to stop an event that has already occurred. But such is the ambiguity of great cinema and I think A Moment of Innocence is one of the greatest films made over the past 25 years.

September 2020