In some ways akin to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema, A Moment of Innocence is as much about the process behind making a film as much as a film itself. This metatextual layer is not quite as strong as Salaam Cinema, but it does make for an interesting story about how these men reflect on their lives and try to represent themselves.
The film chronicles Makhmalbaf’s attempt to recreate a scene from his youth when he stabbed a policeman during a protest rally. He does this by enlisting the policeman (Mirhadi Tayebi) he stabbed to help him direct the film. While the policeman directs a younger version of himself (Ali Bakhsi), Makhmalbaf hires and directs a young version of himself (Ammar Tafti) as well.
Of the two, the policeman’s story is the more interesting one. Hearing him talk about his days as a policeman and the time he spent pining after a woman who kept asking him questions every day shows this gentle, sweet side to the man that makes him an affectionate dreamer, a man pining after his youth and what it could have been.
He’s also so sincere about the way he directs that it ends up being quite funny. As he teaches the youthful version of himself how to stand, walk, and salute like a police officer, the results are often hilarious. The film isn’t making fun of him as much as it just finds the situations humorous and exaggerates them for comedic effect.
It’s a disappointment that Makhmalbaf’s scenes with the younger version of himself are not as engaging. This is in part because Makhmalbaf comes off as a far more distant, cold figure. He’s often on the other side of the camera and only heard, making him less of a human force in the film. There is one scene where he opens up a bit and it’s by far the best moment of his half of the film.
However, it is interesting how the younger versions of the two men are picked. For the policeman, Makhmalbaf insists on a young man who looks more like the policeman while the policeman insists that they pick a more photogenic young man. In contrast, Makhmalbaf picks the young man who plays himself when he declares that his goal is to save the world. The policeman must look the part while the director must have the heart.
This all builds to a compelling final act where things don’t quite go as plan. What that reveals about the characters and the attempt to capture the event makes for a compelling capstone to the entire affair. Reality and cinema blend into something extraordinarily beautiful and sincere.
Even then, that doesn’t quite make up for the weaker moments with Makhmalbaf. His cold distance doesn’t give us enough vulnerability to make him work as well as the scenes with the police officer. There’s still a strong film here, but it fails to live up to its full potential.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing