(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994)
Completing the Puzzle
The plot device of a movie within in a movie is nearly as old as cinema itself. From early experimental efforts like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera to the self-reflexive surrealism of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ to the comedic magical realism of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, there are seemingly countless films drawing attention to why and how they were made. But, no other filmmaker has made an unshakable career out of such flagrant disregard for the rules of classic narrative cinema quite like Abbas Kiarostami. His landmark Close-Up set the tone for a decade of masterstroke after masterstroke, each subsequent effort challenging the boundary between reality and fiction, and yet nothing in his impressive oeuvre matches the complex meta-structure comprised of his three films Where Is the Friend’s Home?, Life, and Nothing More, and finally Through the Olive Trees.
The second film added an extra layer of context to the relatively straightforward Friend’s Home by documenting a fictionalized account of a director visiting the stars of that film after a major earthquake ravaged the region where it was shot. Through the Olive Trees, then, adds at least two more layers to the narrative by chronicling a fictionalized account of filming one specific scene from its predecessor Life, And Nothing More. Here, the “director” from Life is now an actor on the set in Olive Trees, directed by another director, who in this film’s opening sequence admits that he too is an actor. Confused yet?
One of the major draws to Kiarostami’s work is that though his best films are indeed complicated puzzles that require solving, they are intentionally not impossible to crack and are open to various interpretations depending on the audience. Viewer participation plays a key role in much of the filmmaker’s work, and Olive Trees is no exception. Kiarostami gives us clues along the way to figure out how this film’s story fits into the whole before it comes to rest on its primary narrative featuring two characters who starred in a brief scene in Life, And Nothing More. There are explicit references to Where Is the Friend’s Home?, appearances of the Ahmedpur boys from the first film and the character Farhad Kheradmand from the second, and glimpses of familiar locations where both previous films took place. And then, the camera comes to rest on the precise small village house where Farhad engaged with a newlywed man in Life. At first, the scene plays like usual, until we hear a man shout “Cut!” from off screen. It’s now mostly clear: Through the Olive Trees is a movie about shooting the movie Life, And Nothing More which was a movie about the actors from the movie Where Is the Friend’s Home?
As an ontological study alone, this meta-narrative structure of connections and layers between the three films deserves enthusiastic applause, but it’s the heart at the film’s core that helps Through the Olive Trees rise above mere gimmick. Building on the life-affirming nature of its predecessor, Olive Trees is still very much a film about the aftermath of such a devastating catastrophe and the effect it had on thousands of people. If Life was primarily concerned with the people the disaster left behind, then Olive Trees is more about place. There is a noticeable absence of people across this green, hilly landscape. Save for the film crew and small groups of people they encounter (locals, schoolchildren watching the shoot, relatives of the cast), the area around Koker appears largely abandoned. In one scene, the director (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) comments on these desolate hillside villages as most of its former inhabitants have taken to clusters along the province’s major highway. And yet, there isn’t a sense of emptiness here. Unlike the dusty, autumnal climate of Life, the Gilan region in Olive Trees looks positively lush in springtime with rich greenery and tall trees in full bloom, swaying in the wind. Just as the villagers showed resilience in the face of tragedy to keep on living in Life, so too is the land returning to life, blossoming anew, mastering the art of living in Olive Trees. It’s a hopeful notion: Iran – its people and its land – can and will recover from the devastation.
In addition to this affirmation of life, Kiarostami centers his story on the pair of actors who play the newlywed couple in the scene. Initially, there were fewer lines for the man, but as the director learns of the connection between Hossein (Hossein Rezai) and the young actress Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian) – that Hossein has asked for her hand in marriage, but her grandmother has rejected it due to him being poor and illiterate – he alters the scene to have the two play the newlyweds we first encounter on Farhad’s journey in Life. On and off set, Tahereh continues to refuse Hossein’s earnest proposals. He asserts himself as a good match for her (in a lovely two-shot of the pair on the balcony waiting for the film crew to resume shooting), and over the course of the film, Kiarostami leads us to believe the same. He may be a bit too eager, but it seems his heart is in the right place. The fictional director’s choice to change his story highlights the ever-wiliness of Kiarostami himself in another ploy to challenge viewer perception. These two village youngsters court the idea of marrying in their “real lives,” then they are encouraged to play the part of a married couple in the film within a film (not unlike the mistake encounter that triggers another pair of near strangers to do the same in Kiarostami’s more recent Certified Copy).
Much is often made of Kiarostami’s endings, and rightly so. The impeccable final shot of Life, And Nothing More is a succinct summation of the themes within. The closing, presumably amends-making meeting of the imposter Sabzian and his victim, the patriarch of the Ahankhah family, is a warm and fitting finale for Close-Up. And, aside from the jarring, yet brilliant shift in narrative after the cliffhanger at the end of Taste of Cherry, the final shot of Through the Olive Trees may be one of his very best. At the director’s prompting, Hossein chases after Tahereh as she walks home from the set with her grandmother’s flowerpot nestled in her arms. Again, he pleads with her for an answer. He hopes beyond hope that it’s a yes, but if it should be no, he reasonably asks her to explain why. And, as usual she remains silent. Presumably growing tired from his efforts, Hossein momentarily allows her to disappear over the top of a steep hill. When he climbs to the top, Kiarostami captures her in a distant wide shot as she scurries home through the olive trees. Hossein resumes the pursuit, and the pair gets farther and farther away until they’re mere white dots in the distance. But, alas, the stubborn Tahereh stops, faces her pursuer, and we surmise that she gives him her answer. Almost immediately, Hossein turns and runs toward the hill this time taking no care to follow the path through the grove. Music starts and the camera cuts to the credits.
It’s a beautifully ambiguous finale in which Kiarostami asks his audience almost directly to complete his story. Has Tahereh refused once and for all, and thus Hossein retreats in ultimate defeat? Or has she said yes, so he excitedly races back to pick up the bucket of dishes he’s left behind? In keeping with the optimism the great filmmaker uncovers in the films preceding and succeeding Olive Trees (Life, And Nothing More and Taste of Cherry bookend this film in what Kiarostami claims is a truer trilogy than the supposed Koker trilogy), I’d like to believe the latter. And yet, here’s the great beauty in nearly all of Kiarostami’s work: he’ll never tell, and will always encourage us to decide.