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An Iranian Master of Style

UCLA honors filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose works skillfully cover many genres.


Despite the strictures of government censorship, the Iranian cinema, which has a long and rich tradition, is currently flowering. The renowned Abbas Kiarostami's "A Taste of Cherry" shared the top prize at Cannes with Shohei Imamura's "The Eel" earlier this year, and now the UCLA Film Archive is presenting a retrospective of another bravura Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He is best known for his recent "Gabbeh," an exquisite fable of duty and desire in a nomadic tribe.

The retrospective, which opens tonight at 7:30 with "A Moment of Innocence," continues through Sept. 6 at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall. Like "Gabbeh," "A Moment of Innocence" finds the impassioned Makhmalbaf in a more contemplative, even whimsical, mood than usual.

In 1974, Makhmalbaf, now 40, as part of a protest against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, stabbed a policeman while attempting to steal his gun and wound up in prison for the next five years. (Ironically, 20 years later that same policeman was among 5,000 people who answered the filmmaker's ad seeking 100 actors for "Salaam Cinema" [1995], which screens Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m.)

"A Moment of Innocence" imagines that the policeman and Makhmalbaf will jointly re-create their past encounter on film as a way of creating a meditation on the past, its meaning and its burden, and the power of imagination and its magical role in the art of film.

When the UCLA Film Archive presented its "A Decade of Iranian Cinema" in 1990, post-Islamic Revolution films had been virtually impossible to see. It opened with Makhmalbaf's "The Peddler" (1986), which screens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and takes its title from the the final vignette in this dynamic, earthy, three-part film, which in its concerns and gritty style resembles the films of Italian Neo-Realism.

Part 1 is a pitch-dark satire in the manner of the most macabre of Italian filmmakers, the late Marco Ferreri. It concerns a couple living in a Tehran shantytown who have four severely crippled children and who, not realizing that their new baby most likely has no disability, struggle mightily to avoid keeping it. Even more bizarre is the second episode, which plays like a baroque homage to "Psycho" with its weird mother-and-son relationship.

The third part deals with the paranoia a petty crook experiences in regard to a ring of smugglers. As in Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay!," you can all but smell the stench of noisy congested street life; the director's images are dense and heady, and his exuberance overwhelms.

"The Peddler" will be followed by "Fleeing Evil From God" (1984),a brief (65-minute) religious allegory involving five bearded and robed pilgrims in a boat, which eventually takes them to an island jungle, where they discover the devil from whom they have been fleeing is not so easily eluded. Makhmalbaf's third feature reflects the spiritual concerns that permeate his work. (Shortly after the overthrow of the shah, the filmmaker helped form the Organization for the Propagation of Islamic Thought.)

Saturday brings "Time of Love" (1990), which screens at 7:30 p.m. and will be followed by "Boycott" (1985). Together they represent Makhmalbaf's special gift in being able to let story dictate style yet remain the most personal and committed of filmmakers. (In this he brings to mind China's protean Zhang Yimou.)

Banned in Iran for five years because of its subject, "Time of Love" was shot in a beautiful Turkish seaport city with Turkish actors. In its poetic, minimalist style and moodiness, it recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.

The film is composed of three episodes of adultery involving the same actors; the shifts in casting and plot allow for some subtle social commentary. In the first episode, a lovely young wife, the blond Gazale (Shiva Gerde), who could be Morgan Fairchild's sister, and a tall, handsome, fair-haired young shoeshine man (Aken Tunj) are carrying on an affair. The couple is observed by a nosy and outraged old man (Menderes Samamjilar), who informs Gazale's irate husband, a stocky, swarthy cabdriver (Abdolrahman Yalmay)--with dire consequences.

The difference between dark and fair coloring becomes significant when the second episode replays the first with Tunj becoming the husband and Yalmay the lover. The third episode replays the first--but with a witty unexpected ending of considerable spiritual implications.

"Boycott" (1985) is one of Makhmalbaf's most bravura works. He makes stunning use of all the tricks of feverish melodrama to make exciting--and bearable--an expose of the dreaded Savak in the final years of the shah's regime.

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