By Ali Moosavi.
Careless Crime is an unsettling and dazzling achievement, using a real-life crime at the onset of the Iranian Revolution to examine cinema and its relation to reality versus illusion.”
With only four feature films under his belt, the Iranian director Shahram Mokri has established himself as a filmmaker who is always looking to challenge himself, and the audience. By using all the tools that cinema can offer, he continues to grow as a filmmaker. His second film, Fish and Cat (Mahi va gorbeh, 2013), which won the Venice Horizons Special Prize at the Venice Film Festival and put him on the world map of Young Directors to Watch, was filmed in a single, roving take that encompassed its entire 134 minutes runtime. Though its structure, focused on a group of young campers with a serial killer nearby, was that of a slasher movie, and yet the only murder that takes place in it happens in the last scene of the film, off camera. And yet, it had more suspense and tension than most horror films. In that film, and all his subsequent ones, Mokri plays with the concepts of space and time. I acted as Persian-English interpreter for Mokri for that movie in Dubai International Film Festival and was highly impressed when, in the Q&A, he explained his use of laws of mathematics and physics, such as The String Theory, in the film.
His third film Invasion (Hojoom, 2017) depicted different reconstructions of a crime in a maze-like environment, and watching it was akin to trying to solve a difficult mathematical puzzle while being entertained.
His latest film, Careless Crime (Jenayat-E bi deghat, 2020), co-written with his regular screenwriting collaborator, Nasim Ahmadpour, won the best screenplay award in 2020 Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section’; it’s his most ambitious and daring work yet. The film is very loosely based on a notorious and pivotal incident in the days leading to the Iranian Revolution. The packed Rex cinema in the oil town of Abadan in southern Iran was burnt down by an act of arson, burning alive 478 men, women, and children who were watching a film. At the beginning of Careless Crime, we are informed that the investigations showed that the exit doors were locked from outside and the projection room was dosed with paint thinner – when they tried to put out fire, they found that the water tank was empty.
This human catastrophe led to both Shah’s supporters and the revolutionaries putting the blame on each other. Eventually, a drug addict named Takbali was arrested. He confessed that he and three accomplices set fire to the cinema and that he was meant to rush in the theatre and shout fire! But he didn’t and his three accomplices also burnt in the fire. He also added that they had first tried to burn another cinema but had used the wrong fuel. He was tried and executed. However, being a drug addict, he kept changing his story. There were also other factors which complicated the investigation. Thirty cinemas had been set to fire in the month preceding the Rex cinema fire, though none were fatal. A finger was also pointed to the government which had put a freeze on the price of cinema tickets, thus turning the cinema owners to increase their capacity beyond safe limits to increase their revenue.
Careless Crime starts with a scene in which a cinema owner is instructing his staff to put more seats in the auditorium. A young man named Takbali goes to a drugstore asking for a drug to cool the nerves of someone who has committed arson. There are a number of incidents involving a number of characters. There are Takbali’s three bumbling accomplices who, clearly, are not professionals. Rather, they resemble the gang in Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), while the way they nonchalantly go about conducting the crime is reminiscent of Godard’s Bande a Part (1964). They have a beef with “lefties,” a trait shared by both the Shah supporters and the Islamists. These characters go back and forth in time. For Iranian audience, the time changes are more obvious from the events mentioned, the way people dress, the films being shown and the dates which are mentioned by various characters. For non-Iranians, Mokri uses other devices such as reference to the US sanctions on Iran, poster of Jaws in a cinema and someone wearing The School of Rock tee shirt in another scene (naturally, later in time).
Mokri’s focus, though, is cinema and its impact on people, rather than an accurate reenactment of the crime. The film which was showing when the fire broke out in the cinema was Masoud Kimiaie’s The Deer (Gavaznha, 1974), a major cult film in Iranian cinema, which in a most recent vote by Iranian critics was voted their favourite in the history of Iranian Cinema. The discussion we hear among the students and the intellectuals are focused on the characters in that movie, rather than the significance of the crime. In a clear reference to the title of The Deer, and obviously to the “careless crime,” one of the young people observes, “the larger the antlers, the more difficult is to hide them.” The film shows that cinema makes a longer lasting impact and has more resonance with public than historical events. In one scene, set at the time of the crime, the film shown is swapped with a comedy by the now exiled Iranian writer-director, Parviz Sayyad, who also wrote and directed a play called The Trial of Rex Cinema, which blamed the Islamic revolutionaries for the crime. Mokri has also included a scene from Harold M. Shaw’s silent film, The Crime of Carelessness (1912); that film’s synopsis states, “Mr. Waters, the owner of a large woolen mill, is careless about having the fire exits kept clear.” In yet another cinematic reference, a cinema in the present day, in the Museum of Cinema, is showing a film called “Careless Crime” by Shahram Mokri. In that, a security officer is investigating the crash of a missile in the outskirts of an Iranian town. In examining the missile, he remarks that the missile appears to be “our own.” This seems a clear reference to another “careless crime,” the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iranian defence authorities in January 2020, killing all 176 passengers and crew onboard the plane. Even in that film within a film, the people, mostly young students, are discussing the characters in The Deer. For them, those characters seem to be the real people, and they passionately discuss things like the name of the sister of a character in that movie.
Careless Crime is an unsettling and dazzling achievement, using a real-life crime to examine cinema and its relation to reality versus illusion, by going back and forward in time and space. It is brilliantly directed with pitch perfect acting. Mokri puts a lot of emphasis on truth versus illusion, a mistaken reflection seen in a car mirror, a stream of water in which one cannot see one’s reflection. Nothing is what it seems. Is reality that told be others, heard from others, or that seen depicted on the silver screen? It is by no means easy to digest and assemble all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that Mokri throws at the audience but it is a film that every time one watches it, may seem a totally different film than last time. The “music” in the film is a series of tones and sounds, not unlike Wendy Carlos’s music for Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and there are even twins in this film too. Mokri also has a joke at his own expense mocking the increasing use of film festivals laurels logo to market films.
Kurosawa challenged our concept of reality in Rashomon (1950). Mokri has offered another cinematic way to treat a real-life rather than a fictional crime, and in doing so has advanced himself as a filmmaker and perhaps advanced the medium of cinema, which is no mean feat.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).