Cinephiles may reproach Mohsen Makhmalbaf for changing styles from film to film. But for a man who started out as a political revolutionary, was jailed and tortured by the shah, became a cultural leader of the Iranian revolution, and then its most prominent dissident, formal consistency must seem a minor consideration.
Like Makhmalbaf's other great films, A Moment of Innocence (1996) maintains an uneasy alliance with reality. The director takes as his point of departure the incident that landed him in prison, when, at 17, he stabbed and wounded a policeman. Twenty years later, Makhmalbaf decides to restage the attack with his former target-he and the ex-policeman will each choose and direct young men to play their teenage selves. The result is a meditation-brilliant, humorous, and moving-on history and memory. Perhaps what so disturbed Iranian censors (who shelved the film for years) is the suggestion that the past is up for grabs-a bomb waiting to explode. We long to reconstruct it according to our interpretation and have it universally upheld.
The Silence (1998) returns to the remote, quasi-surrealist terrain of the director's magnificent Gabbeh (1996) to infinitely lesser effect. Filmed in Tajikistan, it's the story of a blind boy whose mother worries every morning about their coming eviction. Yet he is remarkably carefree, easily distracted on his way to work by strains of music and women's voices. Makhmalbaf's distinctive visual poetry informs this story about the rich gifts to be extracted from a simple life. But his symbolism is often heavy-handed, and as a figure for the artist, the boy's perpetually closed eyes suggest a disturbing, mystical self-enclosure. Let's hope the director moves beyond that.
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