Magazine article The American Prospect

Makhmalbaf's Moment

Magazine article The American Prospect

Makhmalbaf's Moment

Article excerpt

In the remarkable opening moments of a 1995 film by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a cameraman sits on the roof of a car as it makes its way slowly through a mob of Tehrani males--most of them thin, mustachioed, hungry-eyed. The camera records, the throng pushes and swells, and soon a near-riot breaks out as pieces of paper are tossed over the bobbing heads and the crowd surges forward to catch them, a vast field of upthrust arms flailing in furious unison. A needy-looking mass of women in black chadors also grabs at the papers, and soon the sex-segregated horde has literally stormed the gates of a palace and is stampeding onward, trampling and nearly injuring in the process several of its members who have fainted.

For an American viewer--and, I'd wager a cautious guess, for native Persians themselves: since Makhmalbaf has stated in various interviews that he makes movies first and foremost for his own people, and not for export to the West--the sight of these desperate multitudes conjures instant visions of the angriest days of the Iranian Revolution: the livid, effigy-burning demonstrators who surrounded the U.S. embassy during its prolonged takeover, the pandemonium that broke out at Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 funeral as his body was stripped of its shroud and swept above a churning sea of hysterical mourners, and so on.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Makhmalbaf is playing with the' audience and its memories of this period, just as he's playing rather cruelly with the 3,000 eager souls who've assembled on this day--all, it turns out, in response to a newspaper notice announcing an audition for actors to appear in a movie by ... Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the most popular film makers in the Islamic Republic today. The scraps they're all pushing and shoving to get are no more than job applications.

Makhmalbaf calls Salaam Cinema a tribute to the centenary of the movies, though in fact it takes more startling shape as a sophisticated gloss on the nature of performance, a barbed attack on the abuses that come with absolute power, and a wryly metaphysical meditation on the relationship between the one and the many. Somewhere between a happening and an auto-da-fe, this disturbing and funny film manages to comment more devastatingly than almost any I know on the double-edged ability of this particular art form to redeem and corrupt. Throughout, Makhmalbaf parodies himself in the role of the Almighty Director, at one point even taunting a few aspiring young actresses by demanding to know, "Would you rather be an artist or a humane person?"

For reasons probably more economic than political, Salaam Cinema has never been distributed in the United States, but I describe it at such length here because it serves as a telling introduction to Makhmalbaf's steep and fascinating filmic universe. More important still, a chance meeting that occurred during the filming of Salaam Cinema gave way to the director's next movie, a small masterpiece from 1996 called A Moment of Innocence, which is currently enjoying short runs in various American cities, and which manages to push the dark lessons of Salaam Cinema into territory much more hopeful and expansive.

Shot on less than a shoestring in various snowy Tehran neighborhoods, in the modest, naturally lit manner of most of Makhmalbaf's films, which he also writes and edits himself, A Moment of Innocence is at first glance "just" another movie about the movies. But the longer one watches, the better one grasps that, for Makhmalbaf, the movies contain all of life.

This is, of course, a far cry from the ruling American idea of a movie as the Great Escape, a cautiously scripted and photographed affair, designed to make gobs of money and flatter its audience's assumptions. A Makhmalbaf picture is something far more elusive and challenging, a kind of shifting arrangement of two-way mirrors, in which the audience beholds itself from numerous, often startling, angles, while also seeing beyond that reflection to the director's own world--a place where rigid Western distinctions between public and private, belief and doubt, fact and fiction, tradition and innovation simply no longer apply. …

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