Two Iranian Films Address Politics

Movie reviews XXX "A Moment of Innocence," with Mirhad Tayebi, Ali Bakshi, Ammar Tafti. Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. 78 minutes. Grand Illusion, today through Thursday. In Farsi with English subtitles. No rating.

XXX "Divorce Iranian Style," a documentary by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. 80 minutes. The Little Theatre, today through Sunday. In Farsi with English subtitles. No rating.

Emotions run high in this compelling, fact-based pair of movies from Iran.

"A Moment of Innocence" was inspired by an incident in the life of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who stabbed a policeman during a 1974 protest against the Shah. "Divorce Iranian Style" takes us into a Tehran divorce court that seems deaf to the arguments of abused wives. Both pictures generate a stranger-than-fiction fascination that now seems unique to Iranian cinema.

Makhmalbaf is one of Iran's most renowned filmmakers ("Gabbeh," "The Cyclist"), but a quarter of a century ago he was a 17-year-old outlaw. He was sent to a torture chamber for injuring the policeman, spent several years in prison, and was freed during the 1979 revolution. He made his directing debut in 1982.

Originally released in Iran in 1996, "A Moment of Innocence" is the story of his ironic reunion with the policeman, who turns up at Makhmalbaf's door, announcing to the filmmaker's tiny, pragmatic daughter that he wants to act in one of her father's films.

"Do you want to be an actor?" she asks suspiciously.

"How did you know?" he says.

"If you're a policeman, why become an actor?" she responds.

It's the kind of exchange that could take place almost anywhere in Los Angeles, between a cab driver and a movie producer, for instance, or a waitress and a casting agent. The setting here is so incongruous, the link between the director and his would-be actor so bizarre, that the scene quickly becomes very funny.

Eventually Makhmalbaf does cast the (ex-) policeman. As they recreate their history on film, quarreling over which actor will play the policeman's younger self (the policeman prefers a handsome gigolo), this comedy of mixed motives and recently freshened memories becomes increasingly passionate.

"Divorce Iranian Style" has few overtly comic moments, though it's likely to leave you gasping with exasperation over the Iranian court system, which the filmmakers present as a series of rigged Catch-22 situations.

The rules are aimed at keeping wives from abandoning their husbands. It doesn't matter whether the men are impotent or abusive or they're so jealous they don't allow their wives to leave their homes or make phone calls. It also doesn't matter how eloquently the wives argue their cases.

The courts simply disapprove of divorce, and they threaten the more assertive wives with detention. A custody battle turns into a particularly wrenching scene, as a mother pleads with the judge not to separate her from her child. For anyone who thinks of Iranian women as submissive or illiterate, the film is an eye-opener.

Its creators, who filmed everything with the permission of their subjects, were clearly well-prepared. Kim Longinotto, who attended England's National Film School, has made several films on feminist issues, including "Dream Girls" and "Good Wife of Tokyo." Ziba Mir-Hosseini is an Iranian anthropologist, author of "Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco," who used her knowledge of Islamic law to get a divorce.

WigglyWorld and the Northwest Film Forum, which manage both the Grand Illusion and the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill, have brought several provocative Iranian films to Seattle.