(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1999)
A Matter of Life and Death
Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema is almost immediately recognizable as his and his alone. From the inner-city of Tehran to the vast countryside of northern Iran to far-flung locations such as Italy and Tokyo, there are certain traits that mark each of his films typically within minutes – wide shots, automobiles in motion, non-actors, people talking in automobiles, blurry distinctions between fiction and reality, and, oh yeah, more automobiles. Moreover, much of Kiarostami’s work throughout the ‘90s – inarguably his golden period – dealt with the overall theme of the preciousness of life. Whether from the stories of survivors of Iran’s major 1990 earthquake or one man on the verge of suicide, Kiarostami found reasons to celebrate life. His final feature of the decade The Wind Will Carry Us, then, represents the culmination of his ‘90s output in likely his most serene and contemplative film yet.
The film opens with a wide shot mirroring the memorable final shot of Life, And Nothing More thus bringing us back to the spacious rural areas of northern Iran after the Tehran-set Taste of Cherry. A car snakes through a winding road along a dusty hillside as the passengers within mockingly attempt to make sense of the directions to their unnamed destination sans street signs or practical landmarks. It is immediately obvious that these three men are city dwellers. They soon come across a young boy who tells them that he’s been instructed to wait for them and escort them to his village nearby. The vehicle stumbles upon the village as it turns a corner, and Kiarostami captures this beautiful little town in glorious wide shot. The village, made up of white plaster homes appearing as if stacked on top of each other, is nestled into the side of a hill, and the passengers, like us, are struck by the overwhelming sight.
As the car stalls at the bottom of the hill, two of the passengers emerge to try to get it to start again, and the other follows the young boy up the side of the hill to retrieve water. As the pair climbs, Kiarostami establishes these two as the film’s major protagonists – Behzad Dorani the crass and short-tempered engineer and Farzad Sohrabi his ten-year old companion and guide through the labyrinth and customs of this quaint rural town. And, as usual, the characters’ names match those of the actors playing them. The majority of the film follows Behzad as he explores the hillside village with Farzad waiting to fulfill his not-so-secret mission of capturing a grieving ceremony following the death of an elderly matriarch. Behzad and his colleagues are photojournalists, and though most of the villagers know this, he insists on the secrecy of their assignment.
Much to his chagrin, the woman begins regaining her health. The three to four-day expedition turns into a two-week stay, and Behzad’s colleagues, though never shown on camera, become restless. Unlike him, they rarely emerge from their room unless going off to pick strawberries. The engineer’s willingness to engage in the culture – though he’s often an inconvenience to the villager’s way of life – is crucial for his character development that takes place over the course of the film. Time and again, this urbanite’s fast-paced living clashes with the slower pace, ease, and traditionalism of this small town. This is most evident in one of the film’s repeated sequences where Behzad’s mobile phone rings, and he’s forced to race down the hill, get in the car, and drive to a nearby hilltop to obtain a better signal. In one of these scenes, he runs through the plaster homes and the car speedily drives down the road kicking up a cloud of dust in the background, while a boy casually leads a herd of cattle across the frame in the foreground. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition of two cultures at ends with one another. The man commits a whole slew of cultural taboos during his stay – unknowingly stomping all over graves at the village’s nearby cemetery while on the phone, non-discretely snapping photographs of various townspeople, making a similar mistake as the director from Through the Olive Trees by asking a young woman her name – and yet the villagers tolerate and even accept his overbearing presence nonetheless.
Perhaps of all these offenses, his most egregious is his poor treatment of Farzad. The boy accommodates and even befriends the man, yet Behzad repeatedly abuses the boy’s kindness keeping him late for school, pulling him out of sitting exams to ask him questions, and treating him with sarcasm. It’s clear Behzad enjoys the company of his young companion, but it’s a friendship he fails to appreciate until it’s too late – he snaps at poor Farzad for divulging information about the old woman’s condition to his impatient colleagues and asks him to return only when he has good news. It’s important to note that “good news” to Behzad would be that the woman quickly approaches her death so he can shoot the ceremony. Here, Kiarostami ultimately reveals Behzad’s greatest sin of all: though he continually exhibits a disregard for the customs and ways of these villagers, his lack of respect for the sanctity of life in general keeps him from experiencing it to the fullest.
The film’s appropriately slow-moving pace mirrors the lifestyle of this rural village, and it believably offers adequate time for the transformation Behzad experiences come film’s end. Over the course of these two weeks, he slowly softens toward many of these traditions and more patiently engages with the townspeople seemingly more willing to achieve understanding. The film’s narrative – if it can even be called that – comes to a head when a hole caves in on a man digging a spot for a future telecommunications pole. Behzad converses with this unseen man throughout the film during his many trips to high ground for reception, and one such occasion he witnesses the man get buried alive. Now racing in the opposite direction, his car speeds through the valley to alert the other workers of the man’s situation. When he lends out his vehicle for a group of men to rush the unconscious man to a nearby hospital, he’s paired with the region’s traveling physician.
On the back of the doctor’s motorcycle – a sequence captured in beautiful wide shot of the expanse of rolling fields of tall grass – Kiarostami’s primary concern bubbles to the surface. As an educated man, Behzad initially thinks he’ll find common ground with the doctor, but he soon realizes that this man too prefers to the quiet, laidback life of the countryside to the bustle of the city. Behzad asserts that idleness leads to evil (perhaps a guilty admission of how he treated Farzad), but the doctor claims that death is the worst ailment of all. With death, there’s no more basking in the beauty of this life. And when Behzad protests with obligatory religious notions of an afterlife, the doctor claims to prefer the present to the promises of an uncertain future. It’s a remarkably humane, poignant, and again life-affirming dialogue between the two, and one that inevitably leaves Behzad changed.
He returns to the village and takes a few pictures of a procession of mourners, but ultimately Kiarostami offers yet another ambiguous ending. Does the old woman eventually die? Does Behzad shoot the ceremony? Do he and Farzad make amends? It should be expected at this point in Kiarostami’s oeuvre that he encourages his audience to choose their own ending. But, the film’s final moments do provide some resolve for Behzad. He decidedly tosses a femur bone that he found earlier in the cemetery into the nearby stream, and the camera follows it float by until it cuts to the credits. He finally rejects the fascination with and the carelessness with which he so casually treated death – wishing for the old woman’s fate sooner rather than later for the sole purpose of completing his professional assignment – by disposing of the constant reminder lingering on the dashboard of his car. The doctor’s admonition to respect life has settled in. And, Kiarostami never hides the fact that it took escaping his fast-paced existence in the urban sprawl of Tehran to discover the meaning of appreciating life itself.
Thus, while The Wind Will Carry Us lacks the complexity of his unofficial Koker trilogy or narrative inventiveness of Close-Up or the audacious climax of Taste of Cherry, it’s perhaps Kiarostami’s most complete film. It’s at once a furtherance of his solid life-affirming principles, a thoughtful mediation on the divide between urban and rural existence, a quite humorous story unlike his former work (amusing non-sequiturs abound – “it’s a bone not a shoe”), and another engaging puzzle piece for his audience to actively complete. It stands as a fitting, final masterpiece for the decade that solidified Kiarostami’s reputation as one of cinema’s greatest masters.