I’m staring at a final exam for a class I didn’t take. I have one hour to answer three essay questions. When I’m done, my wife is going to grade me. And no, this isn’t a dream.
The subject of the test? 1996’s semi-autobiographical A Moment Of Innocence, directed by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. My university-professor wife Donna has used this film for her final exam almost every time she’s taught a film class. Donna constantly changes the thematic emphasis of her course, focusing on topics like family, memory, the art of criticism, and religion, all in the context of cinema history. She likes to end with A Moment Of Innocence because at only 75 minutes, it leaves her students plenty of time to take the exam. But also, because it offers so much for them to write about: meta-cinema, film as a gateway to other cultures, film as personal expression, and more.
The meta-cinema aspect of A Moment Of Innocence is what impressed me most the first time I saw the film, roughly a decade ago. Makhmalbaf means to recreate an incident from his youth, when he stabbed a policeman as part of a public protest. But rather than merely re-staging the scene, he makes the film about re-staging the scene, demonstrating how difficult it can be to bring the past back precisely.
This is a common trait of the genre of cinema known as “Iranian neo-realism,” which often contains regular reminders that even a movie purporting to capture real life is still just a movie, requiring fakery and compromise. Some of the best films of Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi (among others) comment on themselves, often via a bifurcated structure. Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, for example, starts as the story of two unrelated people roaming through Tuscany; halfway through the film, the leads’ identities begin to change. In Panahi’s The Mirror, the story of a little girl trying to find her way home becomes the story of the actress playing the little girl, who decides to quit the movie. And A Moment Of Innocence shows the process of casting and filming one of Makhmalbaf’s memories, but does so in the context of a scripted film, not a documentary. It’s a movie about the memory of making a movie about a memory… or something like that.
In the spirit of Makhmalbaf’s experiment, I projected myself back 22 years, attempting to recall what it was like to be an undergraduate facing a final. My experience wasn’t Makhmalbaf’s, by any means. Even though A Moment Of Innocence is surprisingly lighthearted for a movie about a stabbing that derailed two men’s lives, it’s still set in a strictly theocratic Iran, featuring people who are looking back at life under a different dictatorial regime. Me, I grew up in the Nashville suburbs, and though I’ve had my own challenges, they haven’t been anything like Makhmalbaf’s, or those of the man he stabbed (played in A Moment Of Innocence by Mirhadi Tayebi, while Makhmalbaf plays himself).
But part of what makes A Moment Of Innocence so appealing is that while the situation it dramatizes is unique, the emotions within it are universal. When Makhmalbaf and the policeman look back on what happened, they recall their younger selves with a mix of embarrassment and affection. Makhmalbaf sees his younger self as idealistic to a fault, arrogant enough to believe he can save the world; the policeman remembers himself as loyal but timid, unable to act as he should’ve at the crucial moment. Meanwhile, the actors Makhmalbaf hires to recreate the scene have their own opinions and impulses, which shape the movie Makhmalbaf means to make. They’re all very casual in their interactions, showing flashes of wryness, irritation, and regret.
Like Makhmalbaf with his actors, I enlisted my wife in my exercise, asking her to grade the exam, but afterward, she admitted that she didn’t really behave as she would’ve with her own students. “If it were a final exam, I’d give no feedback,” she said. “I treated this like the first draft of an essay, asking questions that could be considered in a revision, even though it was unfair to ask those questions, because in a timed writing exercise, the student has to be selective.” I didn’t behave exactly as a student would’ve either. I typed my answers rather than hand-writing them in a blue book. I took the test at a Panera Bread instead of a classroom, and listened to music via headphones to drown out the sound of other customers. (To put myself back in the mindset of my college years, I listened to Aztec Camera.) But in the interest of taking the test as a student would, I confined my answers to information gleaned from the film and from what Donna wrote in her prompt, rather than bringing in anything I knew about Iranian cinema or world history.
What I discovered, much as in A Moment Of Innocence, is that even an imperfect simulation can stimulate a real emotional response. In the film, as Makhmalbaf and the policeman get closer to the actual recreation of the stabbing, their anxiety intensifies, and they start remembering more about how they felt back then. For me, staring at these open-ended questions my wife wrote—the first of which dealt with something I hadn’t even taken notes about—and watching the clock tick down, I felt a familiar panic, remembering what it was like to be a slacker college student, alternately defensive about what was being demanded of me, and filled with self-loathing over my persistent lack of preparation. But then something odd happened: I began to write, as I’ve done nearly every day of my life since adolescence, and I breezed through the test, with more confidence than I would’ve had at 19. Call it a happy ending.
A Moment Of Innocence has a happy ending too—or at least a happier one than the one Makhmalbaf and the policeman experienced in real life. Almost the entirety of the film’s running time is spent showing Makhmalbaf and the policeman coaching their younger counterparts in how to behave. The policeman urges the Young Policeman to do what he couldn’t do, to confidently give a flower to Makhmalbaf’s female cousin, whom Makhmalbaf brought with him to distract the policeman back in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Makhmalbaf tries to persuade his frightened, depressed Young Makhmalbaf to hide a knife beneath a flatbread. The young actors converge, and the movie ends on a freeze-frame of the flower and the bread extending toward each other, in front of the Young Cousin, who looks startled. In their failure to follow orders exactly, these kids have changed history.
Or, more accurately, Makhmalbaf has changed it, by writing and directing this fictionalized version of true events, and ending it at moment before anything could go wrong. A Moment Of Innocence grasps—with great profundity—why artists so often feel a need to look back. It’s partly a desire to understand themselves and their times, sure. But they also crave a second chance to pass the kind of tests that stymied them the first time around.
[Speaking of tests, below is the final exam, with the professor’s remarks in the margin.]
Instructions: Read the following paragraph containing important background information for the film you are about to see. Then read the questions you will answer after the film. Space is provided under each question for you to take notes while viewing. When you write, your answers should be in the form of a well-written short essay, with paragraphs and complete sentences. It is suggested that you spend no more than 20 minutes on any one question.
In 1974, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old rebel in Iran, protesting the dictatorial regime of the Shah (a hereditary monarch backed by the United States). While trying to steal the gun of a young policeman, Makhmalbaf stabbed and seriously injured him. He spent six years in prison for this crime. After the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Makhmalbaf was released, and became a film director. In 1994, he held a casting call for his movie Salaam Cinema, seeking nonprofessional actors. The policeman he stabbed 20 years earlier, now an actor, showed up to audition. In the film you are about to see, A Moment Of Innocence, Makhmalbaf plays himself while an actor named Mirhadi Tayebi plays the policeman. They are searching for actors to portray their younger selves in a re-enactment of the 1974 stabbing that brought them together. And they bring in a third participant, a young woman cast as Makhmalbaf’s cousin, whom he used to distract the policeman.
1. In Makhmalbaf’s opinion, as seen in the film, why is it necessary to reconstruct and try to understand a past time? How does this film’s “present time” affect the process of understanding this event, and the elements the director uses to reconstruct it?
A Moment Of Innocence is set after the Islamic revolution, but attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the era when Iran was controlled by the Shah. This involves dressing up a young actor in the garb of a policeman from that time, which is not so easy to do, since the tailor the production employs hesitates to make a costume that goes against the government in power at the time A Moment Of Innocence was made1. Yet Makhmalbaf persists, because he believes the only way to explain why he stabbed a policeman when he was a teenager is to include as much detail as he can recall from 1974, to put his audience into the world of the past. He even has the older, now-retired policeman schooling the actor playing him, showing him how he would’ve had to stand as an employee of the Shah, and using some of the rhetoric of the time when he says the Shah was just an ordinary man who rose to power. Makhmalbaf wants to conjure not just the look of the world of his youth, but also the mindset2.
But times change, and though Makhmalbaf can dress a few young people up in 1970s garb, the rest of 1990s Iran continues about its daily business. The recreation of the event in A Moment Of Innocence is complicated by actors who can’t remember their lines, and non-actors3 who interfere with the scene by taking the flower the young policeman is supposed to be holding at the moment Young Makhmalbaf’s cousin distracts him. Also, though it’s never directly stated in the film, surely the fashions are different on the non-actors who wander through the movie’s “set,” and surely the city has changed in subtle ways. The biggest problem Makhmalbaf faces, though, is that the young actors he hires have grown up in a post-revolutionary world4, and as much as they may have heard from their elders about the way things used to be, they didn’t experience it firsthand. And that makes a difference in how they approach the scene they’re supposed to play—and may explain why they ultimately make a different choice than their older counterparts did.
- Excellent detail. So it’s dangerous in some presents to recreate some pasts. Where does the danger lie: in the present which has demonized the past such that recreation is dangerous to reinterpret? In the past that needs to be settled and buried? Or in the intersection of the two?
- Why in general? And in this particular case, is re-entering that mindset necessary? Why must the past be experienced not only objectively, but subjectively?
- Surely reconstructing the past would be easier in a more controlled environment. Why allow these real-world chaotic factors?
- Is it possible for revolutions to be sustained in the way Communist China, for example, tried to do? Is the revolutionary mindset an impenetrable barrier to the director's project here?
2. If the goal is to obtain an objective, accurate film version of the event, does Makhmalbaf succeed or fail? Why? (And do you agree that this is the objective?)
I don’t believe A Moment Of Innocence is meant to be objective; I believe the movie is a comment on the elusiveness of objectivity. Makhmalbaf could’ve easily made a documentary, showing him actually hiring actors and recreating the moment from 1974. But this is a scripted film, with some improvisatory elements (largely due to the cast being made up of non-professionals, undoubtedly told to “act natural”). Makhmalbaf includes scenes that have nothing to do with what happened in 1974, and don’t really have anything to do with the recreation, such as showing the older policeman going from door to door trying to find Makhmalbaf, all without acknowledging the camera filming him—or the actual Makhmalbaf standing somewhere behind that camera.The film is only “objective” in the sense that A Moment Of Innocence doesn’t just present Makhmalbaf’s perspective1 on what happened, or even just his perspective on the recreation. We also hear from the policeman—who complains about how Makhmalbaf ruined his life, and even complains that Makhmalbaf hires the wrong actor to play him—and we hear objections from the young actors, who don’t like what they’re being asked to do.
That said, inasmuch as Makhmalbaf doesn’t just intend to recreate 1974 but also to show how he and the policeman feel today about what happened, A Moment Of Innocence is “accurate.”2 When the policeman is directing his younger self, he’s explaining what was going through his mind back then, talking about how he had a crush on Makhmalbaf’s cousin, but couldn’t do anything about it because he was too shy. In the end, he asks his younger self to change history by shooting the girl, which is a shocking moment in the film, because it expresses the full extent of the policeman’s resentment. Meanwhile, Makhmalbaf—at least as he portrays himself in the script—seems so driven to get the big scene “right” that he ignores how much his cast balks, which in a way illustrates his personality, and how he could’ve done something as self-aggrandizing and wrongheaded as stabbing a man. He wanted so badly to “save the world”3 that he didn’t think about the collateral damage.
- It sounds like you're saying an accumulation of multiple perspectives approaches objectivity. Is that really as close as we can get when it comes to history? Would the film be more objective or true if none of the actual participants were involved in making it?
- Why the scare quotes?
- Very interesting observations. Do these directions by the older generation represent an evolution in how they feel from the original events—not how they felt at the time, but how they’ve come to view their own memories? And do the younger actors have any agency? Do they affect their older counterparts?
3. The Iranian title of this movie translates as The Bread And The Vase. Its French distributor retitled it, and the American release followed the French lead. What do these titles mean? How do the titles affect your interpretation of the film, and how does the film affect your interpretation of the titles? Do either or both of the titles suggest a religious or theological dimension of the film, and would that dimension exist if the film had no title, or a completely different one?
The Bread And The Vase is indicative of the optimism that underlies the film. The movie ends with the actors extending goodwill gestures toward each other1 rather than going through with their recreation of Makhmalbaf’s violence. If Makhmalbaf chose that as the title, perhaps he was trying to emphasize that message of the film: While the past is fixed, the past does not fix the future. In other words: We can’t change what we did, but we can change our attitudes, and we can influence the young2 by sharing the lessons of our misspent childhoods. There’s definitely a theological dimension there. It speaks to the question of grace, and redemption of sins.
A Moment Of Innocence is a more evocative title, though, because it raises the question of where it’s intended to apply. Was 1974 the moment? Or does it refer to these young actors, who are too sheltered and sweet to understand what Makhmalbaf and the policeman went through? Or maybe, like The Bread And The Vase, the title A Moment Of Innocence is specific to the ending. Even in 1974, there was a “moment of innocence,” right before Makhmalbaf stabbed the policeman and became guilty. And this film freezes on the moment when the young actors change history, extending their gifts instead of their rage. By freezing the image3, Makhmalbaf holds the moment for eternity: a permanent innocence, never to be altered by anything these nice kids ever do in the future4.
- So you interpret the final freeze-frame as the boys offering these gifts to each other? Rather than to the girl?
- This movie is full of older men talking to younger ones. But is the movie itself aimed at a younger generation? Or is Makhmalbaf talking to himself and his contemporaries?
- Does film, unlike memory, allow us to return to those moments in their pure form, untainted by what actually came after?
- Well-observed. It’s interesting that you interpret the movie’s open-endedness as optimism, while at the same time noting that the older generation seems to lose perspective and become more rigid and reactive throughout the film. Other interpretive lenses that might prove helpful are the Islamic concept of time, and the way history was treated and utilized as propaganda by the Shah’s regime (as well as by the Islamic revolutionary regime).