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.