"Plant rice if you want to harvest in a year. Plant trees to get fruit in ten. Cultivate a person to develop in a hundred years. The cinema cultivates people."
On what basis can any work by Mohsen Makhmalbaf be considered neglected? He's internationally celebrated, still cinematically and politically active and relevant, and Iranian cinema in general has been embraced by the world, with only Abbas Kiarostami more prominent in the cinephile's eye. He also has two film-directing daughters, Samira and Hana, and a film-producing son, to carry on his name (his wife, Marzieh, often works as his assistant director, resulting in what is known as the Makhmalbaf Film House, an extraordinary dynasty-in-the-making).
And yet much of his work is unavailable, or available only with considerable effort, slinking down the back alleys of the internet and passing brown envelopes to shady looking digital characters in virtual raincoats. And when you get the movie, it may not be in prime condition. Take the case of Once Upon a Time, Cinema, a.k.a. Nassereddin Shah, Actor-e Cinema (1992), only ever released on VHS, ten years ago, with a set of subtitles which do not seem to be the work of either an expert speaker of the English language, a cine-literate translator, or a thinking human being. The word "director" is routinely given as either "regisseur" or "cinematographer," with a complicating factor being that the latter word is also used to stand for "movie theater," "cinematheque" and possibly the art of cinema itself. Admittedly, the screenplay poses difficulties for the subtitler, since the filmmaker protagonist's true love is called Atieh ("the future"), so that when the hero says he yearns for the future, the sentence carries two meanings at once.
At any rate, the linguistic confusion does make the film more opaque than one would like. Already, the fact that it skips about in time (some kind of magic spell propels the filmmaker twenty years into the past), mucks about with reality (characters emerge from, and wade into, the movie screen) and incorporates clips from numerous classic Iranian films which are famous and recognizable to an Iranian audience, but not so much to us. Thanks to the efforts of world cinema proselytizer, critic and film-maker Mark Cousins, I recognized The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969), perhaps Iran's first serious art film, but the earlier action-packed entertainments, whose Méliès-style trick effects Makhmalbaf borrows, were all strangers to me.
The use of The Cow is pivotal, since Makhmalbaf borrows that film's leading man, Ezzatolah Entezami. In the earlier film, Entezami plays a farmer who loses his mind and imagines himself to be his cow. In Makhmalbaf's movie, Entezami plays a sultan (according to the subs; "shah" might be a more helpful word in this context) who becomes obsessed with the cinema, falls in love with its heroines, aspires to be like its heroes, and keeps a watchful and censorious eye on what it's saying about him. Finally he decides to become a movie star, and is cast in The Cow, whereupon he too loses his mind and imagines himself to be a cow, after his director pushes him too far into method acting.
Since Entezami appears as both the 1969 cow-farmer and the 1992 cow-shah, Makhmalbaf is able to move seamlessly from old footage to new, a favourite trick in this film, which seems set on abolishing the distinctions between one film and another, and between film and reality (a favorite Makhmalbaf conceit: see also A Moment of Innocence, 1996, a fiction film which doubles as its own making-of documentary).
The actual protagonist in this one is a fictitious (I think) filmmaker, played by Mehdi Hashemi, who is several times threatened with decpitation for filming where he shouldn't. A helpful line, nicely translated: "In cinema, 'Cut!' means 'Shut up!'" One hilarious-yet-terrifying sequence shows the hero with his head in Madame Guillotine's stocks, forgotten by the Shah and the audience, while the Shah's cat plays with the rope which will cause the blade to fall...
I may have had trouble reading Makhmalbaf's thoughts at times, due to the cultural differences and unreliable translation, but he apparently had no trouble reading mine: I was just reflecting that the cinematographer hero, with his black curly hair and small mustache, slightly resembled Chaplin, when a series of big stills from The Kid, framed like mirrors, were carried through shot. Later, he'll swipe a joke from Chaplin's The Idle Class. Throughout the movie there are speeded-up chases through palatial interiors, an odd conjunction (the impossibly opulent sets are, in fact, real), plus trick effects like reverse motion and jump cuts, although the leaps into and out of the screen are all achieved without any special effects at all. An actor simply walks behind a screen and emerges on it, or else Mahkmalbaf cuts from 1930s footage of a woman falling from a cliff, to contemporary footage of her landing on the marble floor of the Shah's screening room.
The general effect is a funny, touching and strange Arabian Nights adventure set in the worlds of cinema and history and cinema history. The magic of the movies spills out of the various screens and infects the characters, and then it spills out of our own screens and infects us. The climactic montage (ending on Kiarostami) bursts into color and zips through a whole array of mouth-watering movies I've never heard of, don't recognize, and may never see, while simultaneously evoking the startling millennia-spanning transitions of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's much more than a greatest hits clip-show: it's a wrecking ball through the artificial screens separating one film from another.
I'm increasingly drawn to the idea that cinema is a place, that there is only really one movie, endlessly refracted through a hall of mirrors, and that it exists more in our minds than on the screen or in metal cans or tape cassettes or discs. So I had to love this film, which opens a secret door into that magic place, and welcomes us to get helplessly lost inside.
Images from Makhmalbaf Film House.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.