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The House of Makhmalbaf

At the American Film Institute’s

National Film Theater and the National Gallery of Art May 19 to June 15

At this moment of American moral certainty, it’s instructive to consider the life and work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Growing up in the Iran of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the dictatorial potentate installed in 1954 by an American- and British-sponsored coup, Makhmalbaf became an Islamic revolutionary. Arrested after stabbing a policeman in 1974—when he was 17—Makhmalbaf was imprisoned and intermittently tortured for four years, when the first cracks in the shah’s control led to his release. After Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 triumph, Makhmalbaf began writing plays and then making movies, generally with didactic Islamic themes. Yet when he finally directed a film inspired by the event that led to his incarceration, it turned out to be a meditation on the evanescent nature of truth.

That simple yet stunning picture, 1996’s A Moment of Innocence, is characteristic of Makhmalbaf’s later work. Interviewed the year the film was made, the director explained his post-revolutionary outlook: “When, as a child, I started going to the mosque, I wanted to save humanity. After growing a little older, I wanted to save my country; now, I think, I make films in order to save myself,” he said. “There is a wonderful fable that the truth is a mirror that shattered as it fell from the hands of God. Everyone picked up a piece of it, and each decided that the truth was what he saw reflected in his fragment.”

The fragment the filmmaker titled A Moment of Innocence is one of the highlights of “The House of Makhmalbaf,” a 22-film, two-venue series that includes work by and about the director, as well as four films from his wife and children. Increasingly subject to censorship in Iran, Makhmalbaf began working outside the country, shooting 1991’s Time of Love in Turkey and 1998’s The Silence in Tajikistan; he also began training others to make movies, in the apparent hope of creating more cinematic trouble for his country’s cultural arbiters. The result has been several powerful films by his daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, and his wife, Marzieh Meshkini, that address one of Iran’s most controversial issues: the status of women.

It’s a subject that Makhmalbaf himself investigates in his latest film, 2001’s Afghan Alphabet, a short documentary that will have its local premiere in this series (May 19 at the National Gallery of Art). Like such peers as Abbas Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf uses documentary techniques in his fiction films, sometimes simply turning his camera on everyday life. Afghan Alphabet visits a northern Iranian border region where thousands of Afghan refugee children go unschooled. After a few fruitless theological conversations with boys being taught the Koran by rote, the director finds a UNICEF program that has brought Farsi phonics even to girls. The long shadow of Mullah Omar intimidates some of these girls, who recount the mullah’s tale of how the prophet Mohammed virtuously kept his wife in a box. Eventually, though, there’s a tiny breakthrough, which Makhmalbaf preserves in a concluding freeze-frame, humble yet full of possibility.

These days, the concluding freeze-frame is usually a tiresome cliche, an insult to the memory of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. But Makhmalbaf doesn’t use it simply as a cop-out. He’s become expert at suggesting things the censors won’t let him show, and—again like Kiarostami—at leaving stories evocatively open-ended. Both directors’ movies are simple and unforced, yet self-conscious about the process of filmmaking. Cinema itself is one of the subjects of A Moment of Innocence (May 17 and 18 at the American Film Institute), in which Makhmalbaf and the policeman he assaulted in 1974 meet to re-create the event on film, with each man casting and coaching an actor to play the part of his former self. (The two were reintroduced when the ex-cop arrived at an open casting call for a movie that ended up being 1995’s Salaam Cinema—June 2 at the National Gallery—another consideration of filmmaking and truth.) Archly intellectual as its premise may sound, A Moment of Innocence is warm and funny, if perhaps too elusive for filmgoers accustomed to Hollywood’s certitude.

Even knottier is Kiarostami’s brilliant Close-Up (May 26 at the National Gallery), in which Makhmalbaf plays a central yet mostly off-camera role. The 1989 semidocumentary concerns an unemployed young film buff, Hossain Sabzian, who managed to impersonate Makhmalbaf but was ultimately caught. After the impersonator’s arrest, Kiarostami got Sabzian to re-create his actions, which the director intercut with footage of Sabzian’s trial. Like the best of recent Iranian cinema, the film presents both the texture of everyday life and confounding issues of art and representation.

Makhmalbaf explored similar matters in a lighter way with Once Upon a Time, Cinema (June 8 at the National Gallery), his fantasy-world account of the birth of the Iranian film industry. A hapless cinematographer, who resembles Charlie Chaplin, tries to get the patronage of a sultan; the latter opposes allowing movies in his kingdom but changes his mind when he falls in love with Golnar, the heroine of an old Iranian action flick. Soon characters are hopping in and out of the films-within-a-film, with results that are both surrealistic and simply comic. Because the movie features clips of many Iranian movies, it’s probably most accessible to viewers who have seen at least a few of these precursors, but the 1992 effort is also notable for its social commentary. Golnar is a feisty, pigtailed affront to Islamic hardliners, and the tale tweaks censorship: The cinematographer is dragged to a guillotine, but it’s his script rather than his neck that gets chopped.

One of the earlier films saluted in Once Upon a Time, Cinema is The Cow, the 1969 Dariush Mehrjui drama that inaugurated the neo-realist style later emulated and ultimately transformed by Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, and others. The Cow’s influence can be seen in such bleak earlier Makhmalbaf movies as 1987’s The Cyclist (May 19 at the National Gallery), in which an Afghan refugee attempts to a ride a bicycle nonstop for seven days to raise money for his hospitalized wife, and 1986’s The Peddler (May 25 and 26 at the American Film Institute), three tales of desperate lives that range from merely grim to wildly Gothic. The retrospective also includes some even earlier films, 1984’s Fleeing From Evil to God (May 19 and 20 at the American Film Institute) and 1985’s Boycott (May 26 and 27 at the American Film Institute), that the director now regards with skepticism (and that I haven’t seen).

Many of the Makhmalbaf clan’s recent films have shown commercially in Washington: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (June 1 at the National Gallery) and Kandahar (May 24 and 25 at the American Film Institute), as well as Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (May 31 and June 2 at the American Film Institute) and Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (June 1 at the National Gallery). Each is remarkable, well worth seeing or reseeing. Also included is Samira’s second film, Blackboards (June 15 at the National Gallery), which follows itinerant educators in Kurdistan—a location and a subject typical of contemporary Iranian cinema.

Of Makhmalbaf’s recent features, the one that’s been neglected locally is The Silence (May 18 and 19 at the American Film Institute), a parable of a 10-year-old blind boy, Khorshid, who’s profoundly attuned to the music of daily life. Abandoned by her husband, Khorshid’s mother depends on the small sum her gentle, sensitive, but too-easily-distracted son earns as an instrument-tuner. This lyrical film might seem to be about nothing more contentious than living in the moment and appreciating the world’s bounty. Pretty voices, fresh fruit, and Beethoven’s Fifth—as clanged on an orchestra of cooking pots—are among Khorshid’s rapt enthusiasms. Yet when the director was a child, his grandmother told him that listening to music would send him to hell—a joyless creed eventually imposed on an entire country by the Taliban. And the film features a scene in which Khorshid drops a mirror, dividing the reflections of him and his friend Nadarch (a girl who doesn’t wear a head scarf). To Western viewers, this shattered image may be only metaphorical, but to Makhmalbaf’s overseers in Iran, each shard is a dangerous weapon.

As most art-house regulars know, Merchant is the producer and Ivory the director. Yet Ismail Merchant also directs, having made five features that generally share the qualities of James Ivory’s work. If Merchant has yet to have a substantial hit, it’s probably because he chooses more exotic subject matter than his longtime collaborator, not because he’s a less skilled filmmaker.

Like Ivory, Merchant generally chooses to adapt literary novels about flawed protagonists. His work is usually set in India or the countries of the Indian diaspora—the thematic territory where Ivory began his career 40 years ago but hasn’t visited professionally since 1982’s Heat and Dust. Merchant’s latest film, The Mystic Masseur, opens in buttoned-down ’50s Oxford, given just a hint of the tropical by the strings-and-tabla score of composers Richard Robbins and Zakir Hussain (who first collaborated for the soundtrack of Heat and Dust). The bulk of the film is set, however, in Trinidad—which is why its characters speak in a continually surprising mix of Hindi-English and Caribbean patois.

The story soon flashes back to 1943, to follow the rise of Ganesh Ransmuir (veteran stage actor Aasif Mandvi). He’s a failed schoolteacher who can’t decide whether to pursue a family “gift” for massage or use his education—limited, but impressive by the standards of his rural village—to become a famous author. Ultimately, the two callings buttress each other, leading to a career in politics and honors from the British government, which is eager to flatter the apparent leaders of what remains of its quickly dwindling empire. As the tale is narrated by young Partap (East Is East’s Jimi Mistry), Ganesh bests not only his political rivals but also his distrustful, punctuation-loving wife, Leela (Ayesha Dharker), and his conniving, theatrical father-in-law, Ramlogan (Om Puri).

The Mystic Masseur was adapted from V.S. Naipaul’s first novel, a 1957 satire of Trinidadian ignorance, avarice, and pretension. It’s the work of a young man who had recently escaped his stultifying hometown—Naipaul went to Oxford in 1950, and he still lives in England—written with the sort of tartness that both Merchant and Ivory have always felt compelled to sweeten. Merchant has called the book “the story of a man who knows he has greatness inside himself. When he comes to believe in himself, he becomes great—even if it is a crazy greatness. That is fine: Ours is a crazy world.”

This seems entirely wrong, but it’s typical of the fuzzy-headed Merchant/Ivory worldview. Both directors mount impressively detailed productions populated with fine actors, but they often miss the essential point of the story. Thanks to the carefully rendered depictions of midcentury Trinidad and a host of fine performances—especially those of Mandvi and the ever-reliable Puri—the film is a pleasure to watch. Without Naipaul’s mockery, however, any portrait of Ganesh must be flat. The Mystic Masseur devises a beguilingly colorful world, only to drain it of life. CP