At age 17, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a young police officer in an attempt to steal his sidearm. Makhmalbaf, an Islamic militant at the time, was shot and taken into custody, where he spent the next four years of his life being tortured, sometimes severely, until he was freed in 1979 following the revolution. He emerged a changed man, started making films, and gradually became more and more humanist in his view of the world. One day Makhmalbaf was approached by the officer he stabbed years earlier. The man wanted to be an actor, and so, in 1996, the director decided to tell the story of that day, from each of their perspectives. That film became A Moment of Innocence (literally, The Bread and the Vase).
In doing so, Makhmalbaf creates a deeply personal portrait of each man at the two points in their lives, and manages to infuse a lot of quiet humor into it in the process. His framing device is the reenactment of the incident itself. As it begins, both he and the former officer (Mirhadi Tayebi) are choosing actors to play their younger selves. The director quickly chooses an idealistic teenager (Ali Bakhsi), but the officer, not exactly a handsome man, wants the most attractive youth in the lineup to star as him. He pouts when
the director and assistant director instead hilariously saddle him with a nerdy kid (Ammar Tafti) who hits a bit too close to home.
From there, the film follows the process of each man molding their protégé into the mindset that they had that day – exploring their hopes, fears, and dreams in an effort to accurately recreate the event. A girl (Maryam Mohamadamini) is brought into the production to play the director's cousin, and gradually a clever story of intertwining love and not-so-coincidental encounters takes shape. When they finally begin filming the scene, the officer learns a terrible secret about the actions that led up to his stabbing that threatens to end production.
The film is short – only 75 minutes with credits – but in that time it manages to show that despite the violent outcome of that day, neither men wanted it to happen. In the end, one of the younger actors refuses to relive the events, or an even more violent outcome that is suggested to him. In doing so, Makhmalbaf makes it clear that idealism must be tempered with pacifism, and offers up an apology to the
officer for how things turned out in the form of "what might have been."
For a cast of unknowns, the acting is actually
pretty good. Makhmalbaf and Tayebi are the most natural, but the three younger actors manage to do a decent job, too, except for one
scene in particular when Bakhsi unconvincingly breaks down into tears. Ironically, given the origin of the idea for the film, Tayebi is not the original officer. That man, it seems, was deemed too incompetent to be an actor. The movie is better off for it, though – even with the most normal lines, he almost always can elicit a grin.
A Moment of Innocence is shot simply, without a lot of flair. The fact that it blurs the line between film and documentary makes sense, since the story blurs the line between fiction and reality.
It has a "BBC quality" to it – at least, that's how I think of it. By that I mean that it looks like it exists halfway between TV and film, like something that would have aired on the BBC in the 1980s or early '90s. It's hard to explain, and I don't know the reason for it, but there it is. Having never seen any of
Makhmalbaf's other films, maybe it's intentional to go with the pseudo-documentary style. In any event, it's anamorphic, with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
There's almost no music in A Moment of Innocence, and what's there is either
melodramatic or traditional in nature, none of
it really exceptional in any way. The Farsi spoken track is stereo with English subtitles, although it might as well be mono.
A 4:3 French trailer is the only extra on the disc itself. That's a shame, because this is really a film that would have benefitted immensely from a commentary, or at least a "making of" documentary. There is, however, an essay on the film by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, which doesn't go much into detail but is an interesting read in any event.
A Moment of Innocence is a funny, touching statement about idealism and hope. While the DVD is nothing special, it's well worth a purchase for the film itself. Recommended.