In stark contrast to modern Hollywood’s commodification of shots and dialogues, Iranian cinema takes a bold stance on the fundamental relationships between people and the worlds they engage in, and what ensues from this conflict or reconciliation for the mind and the heart. Iranian films in particular are prone to the Tarkovskian failure of cinematic analysis, relying on the absence of structured plots and rationalizations to birth stories of and about life, unclouded by the pretensions attached and adored increasingly frequently by a consumerist audience. What these films grapple for is not a primitive, final truth, but the culmination of lies dispersed in the characters’ (and by an extension that is mastered by the Iranians, our own) lives through memory and time so as to mold a veiled, infinitely sophisticated truth that belittles all the fragile truths of a dogmatic life.
A Moment of Innocence
A Moment of Innocence, or Bread and Flower in Farsi, is director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s autobiographical masterpiece, depicting on the surface an attempted restaging of a stabbing led by the stabber. As the film oscillates between the present and the past, truth and lie, lie and truth, in a manner reminiscent of the endlessly spiraling, melting prose of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, the viewer is lured by the conflict of memory and history on a stage where the greatest contradictions of the characters in the play are symbolized by the bread and flower.
However, to reduce the film to the attempted staging would forego all the intricacies and multitudes of not just the film, but Makhmalbaf’s own dilemma. In 1974, a 17 year old radical Makhmalbaf caught in the political tumult of the Iranian Revolution stabs a policeman using as ploy the bread and the flower. Twenty years later, he tracks down the same policeman to reflect on their past encounter and to discuss a dramatization of the event. Not only is this the premise behind the film, but also of the film, leading to the creation of a multi-layered film designed by Makhmalbaf to seem not only substantially real and close to the viewer, but also accessible, to serve as a reflection for their own lives and memories, each layer dissolving into the other with every scene, without any technical transitional aids, such that this traversing of layers becomes intentionally masked, blurred, hidden, and what is left to the viewer is not a Nolan film to be dissected and digested, but a characteristically undefinable film to be simply experienced and consulted.
As the protagonist directs his chosen cast, the viewers find him tampering with his own recollections, striving not for the justice of faith, but a personal, vain justice grown out of resentment of the past, and the primary inquiry of Makhmalbaf stares at us relentlessly: is the past the stagnant, constantly eroding bank, or is it the river that flows on always?
A recurring theme in Iranian cinema is the intimacy of private life weaved into the fabric of society and its scrutiny, as is portrayed in Abbas Kairostami’s Close-Up, featuring a hybrid fiction-documentary of another real-life event involving the fraudulent impersonation of the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, mentioned earlier. In this film by Kairostami, a man stands accused of unlawful impersonation before a judge in a court, and the entire film revolves around this trial of the deconstruction of cinema in a crescendo imbued with a disarming empathy.
Close-Up powerfully interrogates the viewers, forcing upon them the duality of ‘film’ – is a film what is projected on the screen? Or is a film what is seen of the projection by the eye? What is the difference, and where does this distinguishing line stand?
Brimming with a humanitarian spiritual presence, the camera work and dialogue of the film seem as if directed at the audience, the ultimate jury which delivers the verdict of the heart: guilty or absolved? All sense of achievement and personality is disfigured into an immediate and seething inquiry: is it the artist that creates the art, or is it the art that is created by the artist? Is the aspiration of the impersonator the persona of the famous writer-director, or is it his affinity to the work writer-director? As it is with Mahkmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, there exists a clear separation between the meta-fiction and reality, but this separation is as if caressed by Kairostami, a careful and suggestive boundary which frames the rest of the film, as well as other major works of Kairostami, such as Through The Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), and Where Is The Friend’s House? (1987).
In contrast to the objective-oriented, impersonal, even vulgar popular cinema of today, Iranian cinema offers a perspective on life which seems unclouded by the monetary motivations that dominate, or in some way or other contribute to modern story-telling. A relatively recent Iranian film, A Separation (2011, dir. Asghar Farhadi), winner of the foreign-language Oscar, echoes the same sentiment of exploration of relationships against the tumult of social and political life, an analysis of lives that are both ours and not ours. Despite the inconsistency of Iranian cinema (an inconsistency one could argue shared with all of world cinema), Iranian cinema has its place firmly established in the hall of humanity, if not fame.
The verdict for the cinema of Kairostami and Makhmalbaf remains as suggestive as the questions it raises. Perhaps then, what is beseeched of the viewer is not after all a decision, but a mere consideration, a feeling, a certain nostalgia that is lost amidst the neon flashes of contemporary cinema.
Written by Hassan A.
Cover photo credits: Convolucion