A Moment of Innocence (1996)

A Moment of Innocence begins with two sets of images: one set of a clapboard interspersed with another set depicting a man walking toward the camera along train tracks. The former is a series of undeniably self-aware images, as a young girl reads the titles written on the slate, each shot reminding viewers that we are watching a film. The latter shows us a man on a journey. And while we can’t be sure where he’s going, we know he’s headed in our direction. Yet the key in this opening sequence is the constant interchange between clapboard and man, between fact and fiction. Like something out of a Kiarostami film, Makhmalbaf means to play with the lines between the two, offering us a “false” portrait of “facts” and a “truthful” portrait of “fiction.” The lines remain distinct in this sequence, but become increasingly blurred as the film progresses.

We enter the narrative of the film through this man on a journey, a man acquainted with Makhmalbaf some twenty years earlier. Now that Makhmalbaf has become a famous director in Iran, this man seeks him out, hoping for a part in a film. Their encounter decades earlier was brief, albeit violent. Makhmalbaf, the young militant, attacked this man, then a policeman, stabbing him in the leg while trying to disarm him. Now that they’ve been reacquainted, Makhmalbaf decides to make a film about their earlier encounter, and after a comical scene of casting actors to play their younger selves, Makhmalbaf pairs the young actors with himself and the policeman. The two pairs of participants separate so the young men can get a sense of the parts they’ll be playing. They agree to meet back in a day or two for shooting the past encounter.

As the older men direct their younger selves, we come to see that all those on screen presumably play themselves. So as the suspense builds toward the final filmed encounter, a sense of documentary realism is always at hand. One begins to wonder just how much of this is a real experience for the “actors” and how much of it is staged. While they are ostensibly making a drama based on real events, the actor’s (and our own) constant awareness of the camera leaves the viewer wondering about the reality of these moments. Are they really “real” or just pretending to be “real”?

This line between fact and fiction (undeniably present in all films), rises to the surface here, particularly as we draw nearer to the penultimate attack. Does the film become more or less truthful if the actors aren’t just acting, but actually experiencing the emotions and circumstances on screen? Are there any films where an actor isn’t really experiencing those things on some level? Does that mean all films are recording reality, more or less? I think Makhmalbaf answers this final question with a resounding yes. There is something false in the filming of any image, but Makhmalbaf attempts to drive at the truthful portrayal of his actors even as they exist in the midst of this false environment.

To illustrate these questions rising to the surface, the actors will look at the camera, or Makhmalbaf will give verbal direction from behind it. In one scene, the young Makhmalbaf breaks down and cries, prompting the director to stop the scene and try to get the boy to regain his composure. He eventually does, but we are left wondering about the “truth” of the moment. Was it scripted or impromptu? Because the lines between fact and fiction have been sufficiently blurred so as to raise this question, it becomes clear that the truth of the moment is less about whether the boy really broke down, and more about what is being evoked through the portrayal of the breakdown.

As they shoot the final scene, we enter into the most “cinematic” section of the film. Finally, all pretense is gone; there are no references to the camera or specific directions. The adults remain off camera, “invisible” to the world of the film. The scene plays out in a more traditional filmic style, thus moving away from the self-awareness that has framed the experience thus far.

Without the visible camera just over the actor’s shoulders, the film is given over to the kind of acting so familiar to us. Yet this final scene, in its straightforward way, offers both the height of falsehood as well as a direct line toward truth and meaning. The direction of the older men falls into the background and presumably places the turn of events solely in the hand of its actors. As they are younger people, they remain largely unpredictable. They’ve no loyalties to the tradition or the political ideals of their directors. They only know the world as they’ve experienced it, and as such, act in ways that sometimes completely diverge from their elders. Yet we’ve been conditioned by the self-awareness of previous events to remember that all this occurs in the context of a film. So even though the directors are absent from the screen, what we see before us is still, at some level, false.

As they reach the brilliant and climactic moment of the attack, the film ends on a striking image of hope that the past can indeed be redeemed. And it suggests that maybe art is one means of bringing communion to people long separated by division and strife. This final moment is at once both obviously staged but at the same time deeply meaningful and true. So as the film begins with fact and fiction clearly separated, eventually they are united within a single image. We are left in the knowledge that truth and meaning come to us, even in the midst of a false vessel.

4 thoughts on “A Moment of Innocence (1996)

  1. Excellent write-up, John. I love your focus here. The blurry line between fact and fiction in this film is so intriguing, and I loved the moments when the film really threw me off-balance by crossing that line. You mention the scene where the young actor starts crying and saying he can’t stab anyone, and that is a perfect example.

    What did you think of the scene where Makhmalbaf goes to visit his cousin and takes his younger self along? How about that moment when his cousin’s daughter comes outside to speak to the young Makhmalbaf? She wishes to play the younger version of the cousin in the film, and when she meets young M., they speak first as themselves but then automatically slip into the roles they would portray in the film, as if they’ve met and rehearsed, or as if they have actually *become* their characters during that brief exchange. Fascinating, no?

    Isn’t it so very painful when the former policeman realizes the woman he was certain was interested in him romantically was only a decoy meant to distract him? Wow, he had been living off that dream and idealizing that woman for 20 years!

  2. Great stuff as usual, Diane.

    What a strange scene that was with the cousin. I didn’t write about it because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. The girl especially threw me off, because while I kind of expected the boy to be able to go along with it, I couldn’t understand how she would have known. I think you might be right that they are either improvising or even maybe met before, but either way, it serves as a big “Huh?” in the flow. In that sense, it draws us right into this question of acting or not.

    This all reminds me that the shift to blurring the lines starts in earnest in the car on the way to the cousin’s. Makhmalbaf starts asking the boy questions, and at one point, if memory serves, he tells the boy he “is” Makhmalbaf. The boy pauses, and then starts talking about this cousin he loves. It’s almost as if the boy needed to act before he could get to the truth about himself. Which seems to flow nicely with the ending where these kids, while acting out a part, become themselves. They decide what it is they would do, and because of that, the film takes on an even greater sense of hope. I love that.

    And it’s funny you bring up the policeman finding out, because we find out just before Makhmalbaf gets to the cousin’s house. I was mortified at that point, and dreaded him finding out. But I think that moment is so significant in the film, and especially to what the kids ultimately do. As they go to play that scene the first time, they see the pain and frustration and anger that’s a result of the actual incident. I can’t help but think their final decisions rest, at least in part, as they try to deal with that pain in some way.

    So here’s my question for you: What do you make of the differences between the two sets of players (cop/boy and Makhmalbaf/boy)? Were you struck by the differences between them, similarities, or maybe some of both? I found the comparison and contrasts to be interesting, but was wondering what you thought.

  3. My memory’s a bit foggy about some of this, John, so please bear with me here because I might be talking nonsense. :)

    Now that you bring it up, I do seem to recall a significant pause before the boy said he loved his cousin. While watching, I think I wondered if it was something the boy was just saying in an attempt to mimic Makhmalbaf, though we see the boy with his cousin later, of course. It’s a little odd that I thought that declaration was fake at first. Didn’t he start out by denying that he was in love with anyone? That’s a great point about him needing to act in order to understand himself and his feelings.

    Terrific points about the effect of the policeman finding out, too. That turns out to be the one issue that is still able to cause pain, as the cop doesn’t seem to bear Makhmalbaf any ill will over the stabbing itself, as far as the physical injury goes. The pain when the cop finds out is so great—I think you’re absolutely right about it playing a role in what the kids decide to do.

    Ah, that’s a great question about the similarities and differences between the two sets of players. I’m eager to hear your thoughts because, to be honest with you, I hadn’t given it much thought until you asked. Correct me if I’m wrong, John, but I mainly remember the young cop as being good-natured and willing to please as he tried to learn his role. Contrast those traits with the stubbornness of the older cop, who walked away from the film twice before returning. Not that he’s unlikable, though (by the way, his own choice of actor to play his younger self was hilarious). He gets angry, but he always comes around.

    Young Makhmalbaf has plenty of youthful idealism…without really seeming to have a plan of any sort behind it. For some reason, he came off as rather cold to me. I didn’t really warm up to him until he broke down while rehearsing the main scene—he just seemed more human then. I found it kind of difficult to get much of a read on Makhmalbaf’s personality, actually, or the portrait we are given of the “character” Makhmalbaf in this film, anyway. So I guess that means I didn’t really warm up to him much, either, which is interesting. I feel more respect than fondness for the character, and the main memories I have of him are of him directing in a no-nonsense way. Did we ever see much emotion from him?

  4. No nonsense at all, Diane. Thanks for commenting.

    The boy both denied that he loved a woman and answered with all the other people that he loved (parents, etc). My take was that he was being evasive, in typical shy teenage fashion. But I think it is ambiguous, because there’s this dual sense of him slipping into character and being himself.

    I love your contrast between the pain of the stabbing (which has since subsided) and the pain of the lost love (which hasn’t). It wasn’t the direct offense that angered him, but the way it changed his circumstances.

    You bring up some nice points about these two sets of “actors”. I noticed the strong contrast in demeanor between the two “cops” while the Makhmalbafs seemed more congenial with each other. Yet despite the different approaches that each older man brought to the younger, both sets ended up in significant conflict with each other. The young cop having to call the older back, the young Makhmalbaf not wanting to proceed with the scene. This strikes me as illustrative of the broader generational conflict that’s on display and is summed up so nicely by the way the final scene gets played out.

    And I agree that while Makhmalbaf is “in the movie”, he is the least available of the four. While we see him, mostly we know him from his voice. There’s an awareness of his presence, of him filming the action, which highlights the subjectivity of the whole thing.

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