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Tag Archives: A Moment of Innocence

An Iranian Cinema Primer, pt. 1

In spite of the fact that Iran has been consistently demonized by the Western media since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the country’s robust national cinema has continued to be steadily exported to film festivals all over the world, winning over critics and audiences alike and exerting a major influence on the past couple decades of international film production (an influence that can be felt on movies as diverse as Zhang Yang’s Quitting and Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky). While I am by no means an expert on Iranian cinema, my understanding of motion pictures is much richer because of the titles listed below.

(The list has been broken up into two parts, with the second part to be published later this week. Part one spans the years 1963 to 1996, from the time Forough Farrokhzad made The House is Black, in many ways the “big bang” of Iranian art cinema, to when the first Iranian films began to make serious inroads in American art house theaters.)

In chronological order:

The House is Black (Farrokhzad, 1963)

The only film directed by renowned Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad, this extraordinary documentary/essay film dares to take a motion picture camera to a place that most human beings would otherwise never see: a leper colony. Farrokhzad asks viewers to gaze upon images deemed “ugly” by society but expresses extreme empathy for her subjects through a use of voice-over narration that combines quotes from the Bible, the Koran and her own beautiful poetry. Only 22 minutes long, this is one of my favorite movies of any kind.

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969)

An unforgettable movie about a peasant who owns the only cow in his small village. When he takes a trip to Tehran and the cow unexpectedly dies, his fellow villagers decide to lie and tell him his prized animal has run away – only this well-intentioned lie leads to madness and death. Shot in stark black and white, this allegorical film is as deep as it is simple, a despairing portrait of human relationships poisoned by jealousy and fear. Director Dariush Mehrjui studied film at UCLA where he was taught by none other than Jean Renoir.

The Traveler (Kiarostami, 1974)

This is the first fiction feature of Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the greatest of all Iranian directors, and most of the stylistic and thematic concerns of his more famous later work can already be seen here in embryonic form. The story concerns an elementary school student who hoodwinks his classmates into giving him the money he needs to take a bus to Tehran and see his favorite soccer team in person. But upon arriving he learns there is a price for some things that can’t be paid with money. The child performances are excellent in this alternately poetic and realistic film.

The Runner (Naderi, 1985)

The first Iranian movie I ever saw (when it belatedly opened at Chicago’s old Film Center in 1994), Amir Naderi’s classic movie tells the story of Amiro, a homeless, parentless child who ekes out a living by shining shoes and selling ice water and recyclable glass bottles. Against overwhelming odds, he also manages to enroll in school and learns to read. The scenes of Amiro running, including one astonishing sequence set against the backdrop of an oil fire, offer a touching metaphor for the character’s desire to transcend his socio-economic status.

The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

Bashu, the Little Stranger (Beizai, 1989)

A war orphan of the Iran/Iraq conflict flees to rural northern Iran where he becomes a stranger in his own country, surrounded by people whose ethnicity, skin color and language are frighteningly foreign. Eventually he is taken in by a family who accept him as one of their own. This landmark film, shot in 1986 but not released until three years later, is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s immortal Pather Panchali in its unsentimental look at childhood, the simplicity of its visual style and as a rare peek into a way of life unencroached upon by modern civilization.

Marriage of the Blessed (Makhmalbaf, 1989)

A veteran of the Iran/Iraq war finds it impossible to return to his old life as a photographer and happily engaged man in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s blunt and angry social critique. Reminiscent of Sam Fuller at his most lurid, this is full of unsettling and hallucinatory effects such as an unnerving use of distorting wide-angle lenses and a masterful sound mix that turns the clacking of typewriter keys into the sound of machine gun fire. One of the best movies ever made about the psychological scars of war.

Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece has been called the “greatest documentary about filmmaking” by Werner Herzog and it’s easy to see why; documentary footage of the trial of a man accused of impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (and conning a family into believing they would star in his new film) is interspersed with scripted scenes in which all of the principles have been invited to re-enact their lives for the camera. The melding of fiction and non-fiction techniques is common in movies but has rarely been as purposefully or cleverly employed as here, especially in the film’s climactic scene when alleged “technical problems” prevent the viewer from hearing crucial dialogue on the soundtrack.

The Need (Davoudnejad, 1991)

When Iranian movies first found favor with Western critics in the 1990s, they were frequently compared to the great Italian Neorealist films of the 1940s. While this equation is problematic as a blanket generalization, a film like The Need entirely justifies such comparisons; it is a simple, realistic story powerfully conveyed through amazingly naturalistic performances and dialogue. When two boys are promised the same job of working in a print shop, the owner decides to pit them against one another on a trial basis to see who can “earn” the job. The resulting conflict fuels a story about what it means to desperately need work, a universal sentiment that is rarely broached in movies.

A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

To be continued . . .

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Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

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22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

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21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

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7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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