(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
A Reason to Live
In the past I’ve written extensively on the distinctive traits of Abbas Kiarostami’s wholly unique aesthetic in the world of cinema. Sure, he has his influences – Roberto Rossellini, Satyajit Ray, poet Forough Farrokhzad’s only, yet hugely influential short film The House Is Black – and yet there are no other films – past or present – quite like his. And, though there are styles, trademarks, and recurring motifs throughout each of his works, there is also one unifying theme that ties each of his greatest films – especially from his classic ‘90s period – together, one that says something perhaps more about Kiarostami the person than Kiarostami the filmmaker. Without a doubt, the man wholeheartedly cherishes life. His films may not be as obviously sentimental as the usual middlebrow schlock that gets American filmgoers teary-eyed come Oscar season, but there’s undoubtedly a pervasive optimism with regards to living that stretches from his earliest works until his more recent output. And while Life, And Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees highlighted the determination of survivors from a major earthquake to carry on despite the devastating loss from an external force, his best known film Taste of Cherry ponders what happens when someone loses the will to live and chooses death.
The film almost exclusively takes place in the car of Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), a discontent middle-aged man, as he roams the outskirts of Tehran in search of someone to bury him after he commits suicide. The man’s secret request is hidden from us for the film’s first ten minutes or so as he cryptically outlines a potentially lucrative job for two uninterested laborers, and in one instance is nearly threatened with violence. His enigmatic behavior is finally explained when he picks up a young Kurdish soldier (Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari) on his way to the nearby barracks. The pair engages in small talk until Badii somewhat suspiciously drives the man out of town, through a stretch of winding roads, and stops at a lone tree perched on the side of the hill. Here he explains his proposition. That evening, he will end his life and lay down in a grave he’s dug, and in the morning he’d like the young man to come check if he’s dead or alive. If alive, he wants help emerging from the grave. If dead, he wants him to bury him. Naturally, when Badii returns to the vehicle, the soldier jumps out of the car and darts down the hillside at a rapid pace.
Mr. Badii is turned down one more time – this time by an Afghani seminarian studying theology in Iran – before he finds a man to agree to this absurd request. Mr. Bagheri is an elderly Turkish taxidermist who has a sick son at home and admits to having attempted suicide himself at one point in his life. Somewhat surprisingly, then, he promises to fulfill his duty to Badii, but not without speaking his mind. The automobile plays a crucial role in nearly each of Kiarostami’s films – an important space for contemplation and conversation – and Taste of Cherry represents the pinnacle of his vehicle-set cinema. Not only is one such automobile featured so prominently here, but it’s also a place for forced self-reflection for one suicidal man as three different men weigh in on his decidedly poor decision. (If there’s some cultural significance regarding the three different ethnicities of his three companions, the symbolism is lost on this American filmgoer – at least until further reflection.)
Kiarostami wisely provides little to no context for this Mr. Badii who we’re asked to care about over the course of the film. His reasons for wanting to end his life are intentionally hidden from both other characters and the audience. The narrative decision is crucial in drawing our attention to the filmmaker’s primary concern. Without Badii’s history – Did his wife leave him? Did he lose a child? Did he experience a major professional setback? – Taste of Cherry becomes less a story of a man’s grieving process in favor of focusing on the paramount decision at hand. We’re never asked to weigh in on Badii’s thought processes ourselves; could we somehow find justification or, at the very least, a reason for suicide? No, once again, Kiarostami invites his viewers to fill in the necessary gaps in narrative and engage with the skeletal story on display.
Thus, the crux of Taste of Cherry lies in the three major discourses between Badii and the men who fill his passenger seat at various times throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It’s important to note that all three men vehemently oppose Badii’s decision to end his life, and yet only one man’s opinion causes this driver to pause and reevaluate his choice. Interestingly, it’s the man who agrees to help bury him the following morning. The young soldier objects, and though he gives no concrete reasons for it, it’s easy to surmise that he worries about the ramifications it might have for him as some sort of accomplice. His facial expressions while uncomfortably sitting in the passenger seat separated from Badii standing on the roadside by the closed door of the car reveal his own attitudes toward suicide even if mostly unspoken. The second man too opposes this irreversible act thus denying Badii his services, and while the soldier expressed his disapproval by mutely removing himself from the situation, the seminarian eloquently, yet expectedly, outlines his reasons for his protests. He reiterates what Badii already knows: suicide is unnatural and against the will of God. He insists upon this notion, and no matter how gently he offers the man help over some tea, Badii, in no state for a lecture, drops the man off and resumes his search elsewhere.
The taxidermist too expresses his disapproval of Badii’s choice, and yet he agrees to help him nonetheless. Of the three men, Mr. Bagheri speaks the longest and most freely. He instructs Badii to drive him back to his place of work taking the scenic route so as to extrapolate on his opinions. He draws from his own experiences, confessing his own attempt at suicide at a young age, but he beautifully describes how the juicy mulberries in the tree he had hung his noose, the rising sun, and the sound of jovial children stopped him from following through. He climbed down from the tree with a new appreciation of life. He outlines all of life’s wondrous gifts that Badii would willingly be giving up. Does he really want to give up the taste of cherries? Irritated, Badii drops the man off just the same, but what Bagheri has said sticks with him. For the first time in the film, he abandons his car for a longer stretch of time and hunts down the taxidermist at work asking him to take extra precaution to see if he is indeed still alive in the morning – the first hint that he’s become less certain of his decision. The first two men may have provided their reasons for why a man shouldn’t commit suicide – fear of punishment, questions of morality – but what Mr. Bagheri offers him trumps both of those completely. He gives him reasons to live. In keeping with Kiarostami’s token optimism then, it’s no wonder that this affirmation of life, rather than the two negative responses, has the most profound impact on our conflicted protagonist.
Before the taxidermist even gets in his car, there are hints that our Mr. Badii does value this life despite his insistence on leaving it. He shares happy memories of his time in the military service with the young soldier, and he finds beauty in the dirt and desert of Tehran where the security guard he speaks with only sees dust. The beauty of life is imbedded within him, as it surely is for all human beings, but it takes the challenge of one objective individual – who agrees to his demands as a sign of loyalty – to remind him of that most glorious notion. Badii still prepares himself for his end, hires a taxi to take him to his grave, and ultimately lies down under the tree. Thunder booms overhead and lightning flickers the frame with light as Badii first stares at the open sky and then closes his eyes before the shot fades to black. Has he taken the sleeping pills? Were they enough to kill him? Does Mr. Bagheri show up in the morning? And, if so, what does he find?
Lest we forget we’re sitting through a Kiarostami film, the great filmmaker comically reminds us. Instead of providing answers to any of these apt questions, the film cuts to a morning sequence, but the frame looks decidedly different. The film quality has dropped considerably suggesting the work of a mere video camera. Mr. Badii is walking around the site of his grave with a cigarette in hand, but now the hill is overrun with people – Kiarostami’s film crew to be exact. The cameraman is there, the assistant director, and even Kiarostami himself. They call across the valley for the marching soldiers to stop acting out the drills for they’ve ended the shoot. Kiarostami has stated his desire to always make his viewers aware that they’re watching a movie, and Taste of Cherry provides the most brilliant, startling example. Of course, he’d like us to consider the themes and questions of life and death in the film seriously, but these final moments that offer no solutions to what really happened to Mr. Badii represent Kiarostami’s hope that we not get too weighed down by all that we’ve seen. Yes, suicide is a heavy topic. And, of course, we hope Mr. Badii ultimately chooses life. But, it is a movie after all. Kiarostami won’t easily let us forget it.