Born in poverty in 1957 in Teheran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf established himself early on as one of Iran's most gifted and outspoken filmmakers--and at last report is still vowing to make no more films in his native country as a protest of its severe government censorship.
He first came to international acclaim with "The Peddler" (1986), which takes its title from the final segment of this dynamic, earthy three-episode film, a pitch-dark satire made in the style of Italian Neo-Realism. His latest two films, "A Moment of Innocence" (1996) and "The Silence" (1998), will open as a double feature today at the Monica 4-Plex.
Makhmalbaf shares with China's protean Zhang Yimou a special gift in being able to let story dictate style while remaining the most personal and committed of filmmakers, with a particular interest in the interplay of the methods of documentary and fiction. One of the filmmaker's most bravura works, "Boycott" (1985), makes stunning use of all the tricks of feverish melodrama to make exciting--and bearable--an expose of the dreaded Savak in the final years of the Shah's regime.
Makhmalbaf has said he considers his favorite "The Marriage of the Blessed" (1989), a fiery protest of society's indifference to the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, a bristling, vibrant film of astonishing hallucinatory power that underlines his formidable gifts as a natural storyteller. He followed it the same year with "The Cyclist," a joltingly well-told tale, with social, economic and political implications, about an Afghan immigrant so desperate to pay for his wife's hospital care that he agrees to ride a bike for seven days, a marathon that provokes much lucrative gambling for its promoter.
"Time of Love" (1990) was shot in a beautiful Turkish seaport city with Turkish actors and is composed of three episodes of adultery involving the same actors; the shifts in casting and plot allow for some subtle social commentary. Banned in Iran for five years because of its subject matter, "Time of Love," in its poetic, minimalist style and moodiness, recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
"Once Upon a Time, Cinema" (1992) is a dazzling, whirling dervish of a movie in which one of the last of Persia's extravagant Qajar shahs falls in love with the newly invented movies--and then with one of the Iranian cinema's first screen heroines. Makhmalbaf accomplishes much in this tragicomic Surrealist triumph: He celebrates the magical power of the medium and its unparalleled capacity for blurring reality and fantasy as a way of making a subtle, critical commentary on his country's chronic censorship of filmmakers. 'Innocence' Reflects Incident With Policeman
"A Moment of Innocence," which screened at UCLA nearly three years ago, finds the impassioned Makhmalbaf in a more contemplative, even whimsical, mood than usual. In 1974, Makhmalbaf, as part of a protest against the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, stabbed a policeman while attempting to steal his gun and wound up in prison for the next five years, where he endured torture. Ironically, 20 years later that same policeman was among 5,000 people who answered the filmmaker's ad seeking 100 nonprofessionals for "Salaam Cinema."
"A Moment of Innocence" imagines that the policeman, Mirhadi Tayebi, and Makhmalbaf will jointly re-create their past encounter on film as a way of creating a meditation on the past, its meaning and its burden, and the power of imagination and its magical role in the art of film.
Ammar Tafti plays the young Tayebi and Ali Bakhshi the then-17 Makhmalbaf. The pivotal figure in the incident is the young woman, played by Marjam Mohamadamini, who served as Makhmalbaf's decoy, who would distract the cop as Makhmalbaf attempted to steal his gun. She had deliberately and repeatedly, over a period of time, stopped to ask the young patrolman directions or time of day; ironically, the policeman fell in love with her and spent the next two decades hoping to find her.
What emerges is a consideration of the relativity of truth and memory, at odds with Islamic fundamentalist views, and therefore banned from release in Iran for two years. Set free with the advent of the Islamic Revolution, Makhmalbaf was first a novelist and playwright before making his first film in 1982.
In between "A Moment of Innocence" and "The Silence" he served as screenwriter and editor for his 17-year-old daughter Samira's astonishing 1998 debut feature, "The Apple." She miraculously got an impoverished 65-year-old Teheran man, his blind wife and their 11-year-old twin daughters to play themselves in an investigation of why the man had kept his daughters imprisoned their entire lives. 'Silence' a Poetic Look at Harshness of Life
With the shimmering, beautiful "The Silence" Makhmalbaf continues the move from politics to poetry that began with "Gabbeh" (1996). Set in Tajikistan, "The Silence" confronts life's harshness with beauty and gentleness in a glorious celebration of sound and image.
Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova) is a fair-haired 10-year-old who has compensated his blindness with such acute hearing that he has found work as a tuner in a workshop where traditional stringed instruments are manufactured. Everyday he must take a bus to the city, where he is met by the instrument maker's ward, pretty little Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva), who is not much older than Khorshid.
Khorshid, who has the self-possession of a crown prince, has reached a moment in his life in which he has become mesmerized by the infinite varieties of sound, particularly in music. This means that he's easily distracted, endangering his job at the very moment his mother (Golbibi Ziadolahyeva) tells him to ask his employer for an advance on his salary so they can avoid eviction by their landlord.
(The film comments indirectly on the economic toll exacted of ordinary people by political strife: Unable to find work, Khorshid's father has fled to Russia, perhaps never to return; inflation is turning his mother into a pauper; the loss of his son in battle has turned Khorshid's employer bitter and difficult to please.)
Makhmalbaf has created a rich and beguiling soundtrack interweaving natural sound and a musical treasure trove that's matched with a flood of stunning, impressionistic images. There are epiphany-like sequences throughout the film, such as when Khorshid wanders throughout a vast city market, partaking of the cacophony of its crowds, or when he turns a shop of coppersmiths into a fabulous percussion orchestra--the boy's true calling is to be a conductor. As Makhmalbaf has said, what concerns him is Khorshid's capacity for experiencing the here and now--it's as if Makhmalbaf is saying that life is grim no matter what, so you better enjoy the moment. "Being an Iranian and being independent is very difficult," remarked Makhmalbaf in 1996. "To be a filmmaker and be independent is very difficult. To be alive and living is very difficult. But life goes on."
A Moment of Innocence, 2000. Unrated. A New Yorker Films presentation of a co-production of Pakshiran, A. Alagheband and MK2 Productions. Writer-director-editor Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari. Music Madjid Entezami. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Ammar Tafti as The young policeman. Marjam Mohamadamini as The young woman. Ali Bakhshi as The young director. Mirhadi Tayebi as The policeman. Mohsen Makhmalbaf as The director.