Two Short Films Directed By Moshen Makhmalbaf: Images From The Qajar Dynasty/The School Blown Away By The Wind
It took a while, but since word got out about the new blossoming of Iranian cinema, the films have seemed to arrive more quickly than most viewers could sort them out. Even with the small flood of titles spanning a good 15 years, some of Iran's foremost directors remain underrepresented, though this new set of films by and about Moshen Makhmalbaf goes a long way toward remedying that problem on one front. Probably the best-known Iranian director after Abbas Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf shares little of his compatriot's style. Highly emotive, restlessly cinematic, visually extreme, and daring in their use of surrealism and satire, Makhmalbaf's films are as instantly distinctive in their own way as Luis Buñuel's. Newcomers now even have a fine introduction in the form of Houshang Golmakani's Stardust Stricken, Moshen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait, an informative, if rough-around-the-edges documentary that traces Makhmalbaf's development from childhood through his involvement with a group of Islamic guerrillas, imprisonment in pre-revolutionary Iran, and later reinvention as a director. Makhmalbaf addresses his prison years in the disturbing 1985 film Boycott, starring Majid Majidi (later the writer/director of Children Of Heaven and The Color Of Paradise). While the bloody opening sequence is too heavily indebted to any number of action films, Majidi's arrival in prison allows Makhmalbaf to play to his already considerable directorial strengths, creating a nightmarish environment to try his protagonist's soul. Tortured by captors, ignored by old friends for failing to toe a strict Communist line, and tormented by thoughts of the wife and child he left behind and now sees only under heavily circumscribed conditions, Majidi is plagued by visions of death and forced to choose between conformity and staying true to his revolutionary values. As the photojournalist protagonist of 1989's Marriage Of The Blessed, Mahmud Bigham inhabits an environment of similarly heightened reality. But this time, Makhmalbaf is concerned with those who suffered after the revolution rather than those who suffered to bring it about. Shell-shocked from time spent at the front of the Iran/Iraq war and confined for some time to an asylum, Bigham attempts to resume his life with some coaxing from his fiancée. Together, they take to the streets of Tehran, where they find crime, homelessness, evidence that the old elite has begun to creep back into power, and other signs that the revolution has failed to live up to its ideals. Though a proponent of the revolution, Makhmalbaf's political films reveal an idealist trying to fight off disillusionment, and they've occasionally raised the ire of the Iranian government. Marriage met with controversy, and Makhmalbaf had trouble getting clearance from the censors for his next few films, which helps explain his later shift away from overt political material toward an odd kind of humanism. Artistic successes such as Gabbeh and Once Upon A Time, Cinema (both previously released on video) followed in the '90s, and the Two Short Films tape collects interesting shorts connected to each of them. Less successful, but still of considerable interest, is 1993's The Actor, starring Akbar Abdi as a popular comedian depressed by his desire to make films of artistic value. Deeply troubled by her inability to conceive, his wife mirrors his frustration. The peculiar mix of comedy and drama never quite gels as it should, though the film still contains unforgettable moments: In one, Abdi suffers a public breakdown, but is met only with amusement by the police, who recognize him as a famous clown. No less than the protagonists of Makhmalbaf's other work, he inhabits a world where filmmaking can turn deadly.