Starting Over Fresh

Moshen Makhmalbaf's euphoric cinema reaffirms the basic beauty of life

At the end of a nearly 25-year-long stretch of heightened technique and skyscraping technology, cinema--at least for American audiences--seems to have banged itself against the guardrail, 360'd several times, and landed upside down in a heap. (You can hear the radiator's terminal hiss.) Between our skill at moving time and space, reproducing inconceivable catastrophes on film (without real physical objects!), jamming the storytelling fast-forward button to the breaking point, and switching tones faster than Sally Field's Sybil hijacking a Ma Bell switchboard, we can do it all--faster, harder, and better, from the sublime (Professor Emeritus Martin Scorsese and Head Coach Oliver Stone) to the ridiculous (Michael Bay, sliding another quarter into his arcade video game).

But it makes our heads hurt. And we're tired. How many whiplashing, remote-controlled corkscrew pans can your neck muscles take? How many computer-edited skips through Fight Club episodes can your neurons stand without snapping? And beyond the coarse, endocrine responses we have to this work (like the wholly unconscious erection I was given by the trailer for Jerry Bruckheimer's upcoming Gone in 60 Seconds--a response I swear was driven more by montage than Angelina Jolie), what's left? Do we learn anything more of what it is to be born, to struggle, to live and love and die in our 71.3 years on this earth? Hollywood-driven cinema has left us like coke bingers, exhausted but too wired to sleep. The response? As Julianne Moore's motherly porn queen Amber Waves says to binge king Dirk Diggler at the end of Boogie Nights: We all have to begin again, baby.

So this is why the Iranian cinema appeals to us so profoundly in this moment. And let's hold off on the rhapsodics long enough to note that there's more than a whiff of racism to this statement. A half-century ago, a quintessentially racist movie critic named François Truffaut derided the work of a now-acknowledged giant, describing the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray as "UNESCO cinema." (For those who grew up under the elder George Bush, this is the equivalent of "'We Are the World' cinema.") American cinema is technological and shallow; Iranian cinema is "natural" and profound. American cinema is commercial and headless; Iranian cinema is spiritual and humanistic, a combination of St. John's wort, echinacea, and cayenne pepper in one potent tablet.

Listening to nature: Tahmineh Normatova in Moshen Makhmalbaf's The Silence
Listening to nature: Tahmineh Normatova in Moshen Makhmalbaf's The Silence

There's truth to the stereotypes, but keep in mind these caveats: "Natural" also generally means primitive, and the films of Iran's canonical masters Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makhmalbaf are as inward-spiralingly complex as a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. And there is the suggestion in one's rush to the healthy humanism of Iranian film that somehow this stuff is for us, like wheat germ ground with loving hands. But it's not. If anything, these filmmakers' works serve as subtle State of the Union addresses, flying miles below the stringent radar of Iranian censorship. They represent what is otherwise unrepresentable about Iran to Iranian people (as when Makhmalbaf shoots a series of women as black-clad hands reaching around a door--faceless, anonymous, shying away). The films do a remarkable job of turning what may be one of the most demonized nations on earth (to Americans, anyway) into what looks, physically, like the most paradisiac place in movies.

What makes a great Iranian movie such an object of joy is that the filmmakers find occasion for bottomless contemplation of the simplest events. One of the most remarkable sequences in contemporary cinema is the opening of Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? in which a child is browbeaten almost beyond belief by a teacher for having forgotten his notebook. The scene sets up the plot in standard, Joel Silver-action-movie terms, but Kiarostami's direction of the children and the teacher takes the scene somewhere that's literally beyond words--not even Bresson's and Dreyer's renderings of the interrogation of Joan of Arc come up to the ankles of Kiarostami's scene. In Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami's other masterpiece, a man gives rides to a series of people who gently try to talk him out of his planned evening activity: suicide. The contrast between the rational approach to living or dying inside the car, and the rapturous (and sometimes rapturously ugly) landscape of Iran outside the car, is electrifying, as if Shelley's "The Triumph of Life" had been translated into pure cinema.

Makhmalbaf, the second-most-praised Iranian director, is being represented at Oak Street Cinema by a weeklong double feature of his films A Moment of Innocence (1996) and The Silence (1998). Makhmalbaf doesn't have Kiarostami's gift of sculpting scenes that look so gently hewn and offhand as to appear "just like life." Nor does he have Kiarostami's way with the image itself (though both of them work on budgets that would make America's most famous "independent filmmakers" choke on their craft-service muffins). Still, Makhmalbaf's films are overwhelmingly pleasure-giving all the same. Borrowing the filmmaker's own eloquence on his behalf, I'll quote his description of the difference between Iranian and European "art films":


If someone is sitting in Europe and everything is easy for him, he doesn't focus that much on life. As compared to someone who is living somewhere where his life is in danger as a result of war, or an earthquake, or a flood, or a civil war. That person cherishes life, just like when one opens a pomegranate and tries to savor every single seed in it.

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