Shahram Mokri’s new film Careless Crime plays with surreal narratives and timeshifts to create a powerful meditation on Iranian history. By Christos Tsiolkas.
On August 18, 1978, the Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, was set alight in a deliberate act of arson, killing more than 400 people. The crime is considered a crucial trigger in the mobilisation that led to the revolution the following year. From the outset this act of terrorism was fiercely contested, with the ruling Pahlavi monarchy blaming anti-Western revolutionaries and the Islamic revolutionaries claiming the fire was deliberately lit by SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police.
In Shahram Mokri’s powerful new film, Careless Crime, we are introduced to a cinema owner in modern-day Tehran who is planning to screen a film of the same title. In the empty auditorium he argues with his staff about seating and deliveries, wanting to cut as many costs 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 is delivering posters to the cinema, is indifferent to her work: she just wants to hang out with her fellow students. Most dramatically, we are introduced to Takbali (Abolfazl Kahani), a pill-popping arsonist who, along with three other men, is planning to burn down the cinema where Careless Crime is to be shown.
As the outline above suggests, Careless Crime is not a straightforward historic reconstruction, nor an uncomplicated thriller. Just before the main credits roll, excerpts from the 1980 investigation on the Cinema Rex fire are flashed across a black screen, pointing to systemic corruption in the Pahlavi state. Soon afterwards we follow Takbali to a museum where he meets an accomplice who is disguised as an outsized carnivalesque puppet. In the museum, a disembodied voice offers more information about the fire.
Mokri cuts to a close-up of an old flatbed editing unit that is playing a silent-era instructional film on the dangers of factory fires. Though the inter-titles condemn slipshod business practices, the fire in that film is started by a worker carelessly dropping a lit cigarette. The resolute gravity and care with which Mokri interrogates the difficulty of discerning between social and individual responsibility gives Careless Crime its intellectual and moral authority.
There’s something thrillingly audacious in how the filmmakers dare the audience to accept a certain level of confusion as the various levels of storytelling unfold in Careless Crime. Takbali and his three older accomplices occasionally make condemnatory asides about the moral laxity of contemporary cinema, but their decision to firebomb the theatre seems to lack any political urgency.
A film within the film introduces elements of magic realism, when a trio of soldiers inspect the inexplicable presence of an unexploded missile in the countryside. The soldiers come across two female students who are setting up an outdoor screening of The Deer, a 1974 film directed by Masoud Kimiai, which was showing the night the Rex was attacked. The interactions between the soldiers and students take place in an enchanted forest glade.
Time itself becomes one of the elements that is increasingly ruptured in Careless Crime. Mokri has edited the film himself and I experienced genuine surprise when I first realised that even the ostensibly realist scenes were not following a linear chronological progression. The editing is expert, almost forensic, in its juggling of recurring time shifts. But Mokri resists the temptation to broadcast the dexterity of the editing and the sophistication of the script, which he co-wrote with Nasim Ahmadpour. It’s a remarkable restraint. His focus – and therefore ours – is always on the characters.
In the film within the film, the soldiers’ bewildered musings on the appearance of the undetonated missile refer to both the activities of Daesh and the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s. Most chilling in terms of these shifting temporal discontinuities, however, is the ruthless determination of the quartet to set the cinema alight. Though we know we are in the contemporary world, at one point they walk down an alley where anti-Shah graffiti is splattered in English across the wall, collapsing in that moment the undeniable differences between pre- and post-revolutionary Iran.
For such a densely complicated film, with a running time of more than two hours, the tension never lags. The intricate roundelay of the screenplay and the assuredness of the cross-cutting reminded me of the best of Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Careless Crime is most potent in its meditation on the meaning and legacy of Iranian film. One of the most vital aspects of the Iranian New Wave – the astonishing suite of films that emerged from that country after the revolution – was its remarkable humanism. These films galvanised cinematic realism. Perhaps because the Iranian revolution was religious rather than Marxist, the filmmakers eschewed the simplistic didacticism that can mar even some of the outstanding films that emerged from anticolonial traditions. And in comparison with the films of radical directors from western Europe and North America, the Iranian films felt wonderfully free of academic sophistry.
In their elliptical, observant cinema, Iranian filmmakers made nuance – essential for artists who are working under conditions of strict censorship – central to their art. They consciously worked in a great Iranian documentary tradition that predates the revolution and they were also indebted to a Persian literary tradition that has for a long time played with the forms and traditions of storytelling.
Mokri’s film is clearly part of this historical legacy, with a key difference being that he is young enough to also reflect on the legacy of the Iranian New Wave. Watching Careless Crime, I kept thinking back to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1996 A Moment of Innocence, where he tries to get three young people to re-enact an incident of violence that happened under the Shah. Their collective refusal to do so – to defiantly eschew commemorating violence – makes that film one of the great pacifist works of cinema. There are even stronger echoes of Jafar Panahi’s 2003 Crimson Gold, a film that emphasises the class dimensions of crime and violence. From the almost unnerving closeness of the camera as it observes Takbali, to the cool colour palette of blues and greys of Careless Crime’s urban scenes, the homage to the Panahi film seems deliberate and acute.
There are jarring weaknesses. When Mokri resorts to deliberate symbolism, the film seems heavy-handed. The museum sequence early in the film ends with Takbali being escorted through an unlit underworld by a female guide. The reference seems to be to Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, but the scene feels half-baked. The meaning of the puppet also escaped me.
A clinical detachment means the film lacks the emotional resonance that is integral to the Makhmalbaf and Panahi films. Takbali’s drugged ennui gets to be exhausting, although I appreciated Kahani’s uncompromising immersion in the role. His self-involvement is total: he is incapable of empathy. Careless Crime makes it clear that there have been levels of carelessness across the social world it depicts, but we are left in no doubt of Takbali’s moral degeneracy. At one point we see him making an active choice that will result in the deaths of more than 400 people. Like a working-class, demented version of one of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, setting the world on fire is his way of getting high.
It is the film within the film that offers warmth, in the almost folkloric development of the tale and the infectious pleasure Mokri takes in executing the dazzling timeshifting scenes. Unlike the rest of the film, the colours here are golden, almost honey-hued.
At one point, the soldiers and the students look across to a white sheet that has been hung between the trees and we see a scene from The Deer. I have never seen the film, but the controlled emoting of the great Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi made me recall watching Greek and Bollywood black-and-white melodramas on the big screen as a child. Watching the film, we finally also imagine the audience in the Rex. That moment is heartbreaking.
Careless Crime doesn’t shy away from the tragic ramifications of violence or the perniciousness of recklessness and neglect. But with an inevitable melancholy, its affirmation of the joy to be found in the collective experience of filmgoing tentatively avows that different endings, at least in cinema, are always possible.
Careless Crime is part of the Iranian Film Festival Australia, which includes online viewing from July 15 to 30.
MUSIC Leaps and Bounds Music Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, July 16-25
CULTURE Fiona Foley: Veiled Paradise
QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, until September 26
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, until August 1
LITERATURE Yarra Valley Writers Festival
Venues throughout Warburton, Victoria, July 16-18
INSTALLATION Illuminate Adelaide
Venues throughout Adelaide, July 16–August 1
CULTURE Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival
Grove, Tasmania, until July 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Crime scenes".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.