(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1992)
The Art of Living
The biggest question surrounding Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to his magnum opus Close-Up is not whether or not it actually comprises a trilogy along with 1987’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? and 1994’s Through the Olive Trees (an unofficial notion Kiarostami has repeatedly dismissed), but whether or not its English title should be Life, And Nothing More (from what I understand, a more literal translation from Farsi) or Life Goes On. The former seems to be the consensus choice now, and perhaps rightly so if it gets at the heart of the filmmaker’s intentions, but I confess I vastly prefer the latter. For this writer, Life Goes On explicitly references the theme explored within the film, the most accessible of the director’s rich reality/fiction blending work.
Whether or not these three related films do comprise a trilogy seems about as relevant as attempting to decipher when reality ends and fiction begins in Kiarostami’s films. It is, however, one of the most successful exercises in metafiction that directly references the director’s own work. Following the devastating earthquake in 1990 that claimed more than 40,000 lives and left 500,000 homeless, Kiarostami felt compelled to travel north to the village of Koker where he filmed most of his strictly narrative Where Is the Friend’s Home? to see if his stars had survived the catastrophe. Life, And Nothing More concerns this journey but with a fictional character as a stand-in for Kiarostami. Farhad Kheradmand plays the film director accompanied by his son Puya (Buba Bayour) as they drive north from Tehran on their way to Koker. The first half of the film is classic Kiarostami with the pair rarely leaving their vehicle, a sacred place in Kiarostami’s oeuvre for contemplation and discourse. Along the way, the camera surveys the wreckage of the recent earthquake with tracking shots filmed from inside the car – people sift through rubble, set up makeshift tents, and attempt to salvage the remains of their former possessions.
But, the film really starts to gain traction in its second half when they stop in a village on their way to Koker, home to a Mr. Rahi who starred in Friend’s Home – the first sign that some of the cast has indeed survived. Here, Kheradmand and his son interact with the villagers separately and discover just how much each has lost in the tragedy. A woman lost her eldest daughter, Mr. Rahi’s home is in ruins, and a newlywed couple lost many of their relatives on the eve of their wedding. And yet, as the pair continues on and picks up a boy who also starred in the film, Kheradmand learns that in the face of such devastating loss, the people of this region are committed to continuing to live their lives. Kheradmand aptly wonders how these souls tormented by the loss of loved ones and their homes can watch television or discuss the World Cup, but Mr. Rahi reminds this artist that to continue living is also an art.
The beauty, then, in Life, And Nothing More is that though Kiarostami set out to capture the damage of one of his country’s greatest natural disasters (which he did: personal loss and questioning of God and goodness are not glossed over here), but he also found a resilient people dedicated to coping and eventually moving on. Many films, both fiction and non-fiction, have documented historic tragedies, but few truly grapple with the aftermath. And, with Life, And Nothing More, Kiarostami crafts a touching, life-affirming prelude to his similarly themed and arguably deeper and better films Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry. In the film’s astounding final shot, he sums up the entire grieving process in one wide-shot take. Kheradmand drives on toward Koker, but his car overheats and he cannot make it past a particularly sharp curve. He backs up, a friendly passerby helps him push the vehicle into gear, and Kheradmand resolves to turn back. Seconds later, the car reappears from the right of the frame, it speeds up, and passes through the tight bend. Kheradmand stops long enough to pick the man up and continues on his way. There is a major setback, people coming together to overcome it, accepting defeat, and finally the drive to carry on. It’s a powerfully fitting ending that captures the essence of Kiarostami’s vehicular-obsessed cinema, and one that highlights the optimism achieved throughout.