Reckless crime | Saturday newspaper

On August 18, 1978, the Rex Cinema in Abadan, Iran was set on fire in an arson, killing over 400 people. Crime is seen as a crucial trigger for the mobilization that led to the revolution the following year. From the outset, this act of terrorism was fiercely contested, with the ruling Pahlavi monarchy accusing anti-Western revolutionaries and Islamic revolutionaries claiming that the fire was deliberately lit by SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police.

In Shahram Mokri’s powerful new film, Reckless crime, we are introduced to a cinema owner in today’s Tehran who plans to show a film of the same title. In the empty auditorium, he argues with his staff over seating and deliveries, wanting to keep costs as low as possible. In a virtuoso kinetic sequence filmed entirely in a car, we meet an impatient young woman, Elham (Razie Mansori), who is arguing with her mother. Elham, who delivers posters to the movies, is indifferent to her job: she just wants to spend time with her classmates. More dramatic still, we are introduced to Takbali (Abolfazl Kahani), an arsonist who, with three other men, plans to set fire to the cinema where Reckless crime is to be shown.

As the diagram above suggests, Reckless crime is not a simple historical re-enactment, nor a simple thriller. Just before the main credits, clips from the 1980 Cinema Rex fire investigation are projected onto a black screen, indicating systemic corruption in Pahlavi State. Shortly after, we follow Takbali to a museum where he meets an accomplice disguised as an oversized carnival puppet. In the museum, a disembodied voice offers more information about the fire.

Mokri cuts to a close-up of an old flatbed assembly unit showing a silent era instructional film on the dangers of factory fires. Although the headlines condemn sloppy business practices, the fire in this film is started by a worker carelessly dropping a lit cigarette. The seriousness and the resolute care with which Mokri questions the difficulty of discerning between social responsibility and individual responsibility gives Reckless crime his intellectual and moral authority.

There is something extremely daring about the way the filmmakers challenge audiences to accept a certain level of confusion as the different levels of storytelling unfold in Reckless crime. Takbali and his three older accomplices sometimes make condemnatory asides about the moral laxity of contemporary cinema, but their decision to bomb the theater appears to be lacking in political urgency.

A film within the film introduces elements of magical realism, when a trio of soldiers inspect the inexplicable presence of an unexploded missile in the countryside. The soldiers pass two students who are organizing an outdoor screening of The deer, a 1974 film directed by Masoud Kimiai, which showed the night the Rex was attacked. Interactions between soldiers and students take place in an enchanted forest glade.

Time itself becomes one of the more and more broken elements in Reckless crime. Mokri edited the film himself and I felt a real surprise when I first realized that even the ostensibly realistic scenes do not follow a linear chronological progression. The editing is expert, almost forensic, in its juggling with recurring time lags. But Mokri resists the temptation to diffuse the dexterity of the editing and the sophistication of the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Nasim Ahmadpour. It is a remarkable restraint. His focus – and therefore ours – is always on the characters.

In the film inside the film, the soldiers’ puzzled reflections on the appearance of the unexploded missile refer to both ISIS activities and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. However, most frightening in terms of these shifting temporal discontinuities is the quartet’s ruthless determination to set the cinema on fire. Although we know that we are in the contemporary world, at one point they are walking down an alley where anti-Shah graffiti is splashed in English on the wall, at that point erasing the undeniable differences between pre -revolutionary and post-revolutionary.

For such a densely complicated film, with a run time of over two hours, the tension never lags. The complex roundelay of the script and the assurance of transversality reminded me of the best of Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Reckless crime is most powerful in his meditation on the meaning and heritage of Iranian cinema. One of the most vital aspects of the Iranian New Wave – the astonishing sequel to films that emerged from this country after the revolution – was its remarkable humanism. These films galvanized cinematic realism. Perhaps because the Iranian revolution was religious rather than Marxist, filmmakers avoided the simplistic didacticism that can spoil even some of the outstanding films from anti-colonial traditions. And compared to films by radical directors in Western Europe and North America, Iranian films felt wonderfully free from academic fallacy.

In their elliptical and observant cinema, Iranian filmmakers have placed nuance – essential for artists working under conditions of strict censorship – at the heart of their art. They were consciously working in a great Iranian documentary tradition predating the revolution and they were also indebted to a Persian literary tradition that has long played with the forms and traditions of storytelling.

Mokri’s film is clearly part of that historical legacy, except that he is young enough to reflect on the legacy of Iran’s New Wave as well. Watching Reckless crime, I kept thinking back to 1996 by Mohsen Makhmalbaf A moment of innocence, where he tries to get three young people to reenact an incident of violence that happened under the Shah. Their collective refusal to do so – defiantly to avoid commemorating violence – makes this film one of the great pacifist works of cinema. There are even stronger echoes of Jafar Panahi’s 2003 Crimson Gold, a film that emphasizes the class dimensions of crime and violence. From the almost disconcerting proximity of the camera as she observes Takbali, to the cool color palette of blues and grays of Reckless crimeurban scenes, the homage to the film Panahi seems deliberate and shrill.

There are glaring weaknesses. When Mokri resorts to deliberate symbolism, the film feels heavy. The museum sequence at the start of the film ends with Takbali being escorted through an unlit underworld by a female guide. The reference seems to be that of Jean Cocteau Orpheus, but the scene looks half done. The meaning of the puppet escaped me too.

Clinical detachment means the film lacks the emotional resonance that is so integral to the Makhmalbaf and Panahi films. Takbali’s drugged boredom becomes exhausting, although I enjoyed Kahani’s uncompromising immersion in the role. His involvement is total: he is incapable of empathy. Reckless crime makes it clear that there have been levels of recklessness in the social world he portrays, but we leave no doubt about Takbali’s moral degeneration. At one point, we see him making an active choice that will result in the deaths of over 400 people. Like a working-class, demented version of one of the The possessed, setting the world on fire is his way of getting high.

It is the film within the film that offers the warmth, in the almost folkloric unfolding of the tale and the contagious pleasure that Mokri takes in executing the dazzling temporally offset scenes. Unlike the rest of the movie, the colors here are golden, almost honeyed.

At one point, the soldiers and students look at a white sheet that has been suspended between the trees and we see a scene of The deer. I’ve never seen the film, but the controlled emotion of the great Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi reminded me of watching black and white Greek and Bollywood melodramas on the big screen as a child. By watching the film, we finally also imagine the public in the Rex. This moment is heartbreaking.

Reckless crime is not afraid of the tragic ramifications of violence or the pernicious effects of recklessness and neglect. But with an inevitable melancholy, his affirmation of the joy found in the collective experience of cinema timidly admits that different ends, at least in cinema, are always possible.

Reckless crime is part of the Iranian Film Festival Australia, which includes online viewing July 15-30.

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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 under the title “Crime Scenes”.

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