Like Someone in Love

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(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Japan/Iran, 2012)

A Lonely Ride

Despite its instantly discernible Tokyo setting, Like Someone in Love is, from its very first shot, clearly the work of filmmaking genius Abbas Kiarostami. The opening credits give way to a static shot of a crowded and lively nightclub. Patrons drink, smoke, and swap stories basking in the sultry ambiance of the place as a woman’s voice becomes distinctly audible over the chatter. Her tone is short, her words defensive, but as viewers our attention is focused on another matter. Here Kiarostami already presents us with a puzzle, even if just a simple one. Our eyes scan the scene for the speaker, but she’s nowhere in the frame. Only when Kiarostami finally cuts to the second shot of a young woman on her mobile phone do we realize she’s been sitting just off camera the whole time; we’ve been looking for someone who’s not there. It’s a perfectly wily gesture for the man who gets his thrills from deliberating distorting audience expectations and challenging assumed perspectives.

Kiarostami’s latest marks his second departure from his native Iran following 2010’s Italian countryside set masterwork Certified Copy. (Perhaps suggesting a late-career cultural curiosity akin to Woody Allen’s ongoing Eurotrip? If so, Kiarostami’s globe-trotting tour – only two films in – is already more successful.) Unsurprisingly, then, Like Someone in Love, though less adherent to narrative trickery than its direct predecessor, bears considerable resemblance to that wonderfully thought-provoking film. And, while his latest never reaches the emotional heights of or engages the mind quite like his previous outing, Like Someone in Love still represents a remarkable entry in Kiarostami’s substantial canon.

It is perhaps best viewed as a related follow-up, if not a true companion, to Certified Copy. Per usual, the film toys with perception and blurs the distinction between reality and fiction, fitting in quite nicely with the director’s numerous projects exploring the same. But, as it relates to his career-resuscitating feature firmly rooted in narrative fiction, Like Someone in Love also hinges on a mistake encounter. No one assumes completely different roles suggestive of an alternate narrative altogether like the art enthusiast and the writer in Copy, but Love’s centerpiece featuring a tranquil car ride bringing its three major characters together requires each to engage in a form of role playing to avoid confrontation. It also cleverly nods toward its predecessor in one brief, yet crucial sequence as two characters discuss the meaning and misinterpretation of a famous piece of art. The car ride and this moment of artistic appreciation especially highlight the dualities imbedded in Kiarostami’s characters.

Akiko (Rin Takanashi), the woman Kiarostami introduces at film’s beginning, lives a double life. She’s a sharp sociology student at university and girlfriend by day and a high-end escort by night. Her desire to keep this side job a secret from her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryô Kase) triggers the necessary role playing between the three later on. The film’s third major character, then, is Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno) – an elderly retired professor who lives alone and hires Akiko presumably for her after-hour services late one evening. When she arrives at his tiny, cluttered apartment, it soon becomes clear that he may be less interested in sex than he is in recreating an intimate night in with a loved one. He’s prepared soup, has poured the wine, and is anxious to sit down to dinner with the young woman. She tries her best to lure him into bed, but he becomes easily uncomfortable, allowing the ringing phone to pull him from the bedroom and wait for her to fall asleep.

The following morning finds the two in the car – another signature Kiarostami move – as Takashi agrees to drop her off at school. Inevitably, Akiko runs into Noriaki on her way onto campus. She pushes past him, but not before he glimpses her chauffeur waiting in his car nearby. He takes the man for Akiko’s grandfather, inserts himself into the passenger seat, and joins the pair when Akiko returns on their way to the local bookstore. Here, Like Someone in Love establishes itself as a Kiarostami film through and through; its vehicular discourses reminiscent of Taste of Cherry, Ten, and most recently Certified Copy. He captures these exchanges in steady long takes and at times beautifully through the windshield so as to reflect the urban sprawl back on itself. Akiko and Takashi insist on their grandfather/granddaughter relationship, and Noriaki speaks of himself now as Akiko’s fiancé (an opportunistic lie or a minute narrative trick?).

The rest of the film follows the repercussions of Takashi and Akiko’s lie and the effect it has on each of their respective relationships. It ends abruptly (and startlingly!) and without resolve, but what else have we come to expect from Kiarostami? This ambiguity may frustrate some viewers, but viewed within the context of Kiarostami’s entire body of work, it’s also entirely fitting. I know of no other widely known filmmaker that encourages viewer participation in his or her works quite like Kiarostami. As with Taste of Cherry or The Wind Will Carry Us or Certified Copy, here he relies on his audience to fill in the necessary gaps: What actually happened that night between Takashi and Akiko? What happened to Takashi’s wife? What is the relationship between Takashi and his yearning neighbor? Are Akiko and Noriaki just dating or actually engaged? Whatever we bring to the table as individual viewers will give us the answers.

Rather than plugging narrative holes or providing his characters with explicated back-stories, Kiarostami is more concerned with ideas and recurring themes. Acts of love populate the entirety of the film, but are any of these characters truly in love? Noriaki insists on marrying Akiko, but his reasons never convince. Akiko defends her relationship with Noriaki, but she’s most often unhappy and at times even afraid. Takashi cares for Akiko and even becomes her protector in a time of need, but he barely even knows her. No, these people are not in love. But, they play their roles each like someone in love, nonetheless. If that notion sparks feelings of melancholy, they wouldn’t be misplaced; Kiarostami uses this concept of something “like love” and the urban sea of Tokyo to evoke personal isolation.

With the modern convenience of city life, communication and travel are easier than ever, and yet oftentimes loneliness prevails regardless. Kiarostami captures this best in an early sequence when Akiko’s duties keep her from meeting up with her visiting grandmother. Per her request, the taxi driver circles the bus station twice allowing Akiko a glimpse of her grandmother before her next appointment. They’re so close, yet there’s an ocean of distance between them. This, paired with earlier shots of Akiko listening to her grandmother’s voicemails on headphones with reflections of Tokyo in the car window washing over the frame, reveal the depths of emotion Kiarostami manages to convey outside the confines of conventional filmic storytelling. Each new release of his proves that he’s consistently one of the most significant and innovative filmmakers working today.

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Certified Copy

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(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)

Playing the Part

Venturing out of his native Iran for the first time, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami explores the beautiful vistas of central Italy for this late-career feature. Despite the change of scenery and the presence of a world-renowned European actress, Certified Copy finds the acclaimed director in familiar territory, straddling the boundary between fiction and reality. Instead of providing an unusual (albeit brilliant) conclusion rooted in the latter (Taste of Cherry) or employing the techniques of cinéma verité (The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten), Certified Copy centers on the very premise of pushing that boundary to its limits.

Its opening scene introduces us to James Miller (opera singer William Shimell), an English essayist on tour in Tuscany to promote his latest book Copie conforme. He expounds on the thesis of his work to a group of listeners and thus presents the film’s overall theme. Miller boldly maintains that a copy of any piece of art provides just as much value as its original. “Art is not an easy subject to write about,” Miller admits after also confessing that he is not an expert in the field. One of the session’s attendees, a nameless (cleverly credited as simply ‘She’) small antique shop owner (Juliette Binoche), disagrees with the author’s notion but is intrigued by him nonetheless. Unable to stay for his entire presentation due to her impatient son, she invites Miller to her shop the next day.

The pair embarks on a daylong journey through the Italian countryside filled with wonderings, philosophizing, and disagreements. Their opinionated discourse keeps the two at a distance – one a frustrated single parent firmly rooted in reality, the other more interested in theoretical possibilities. These somewhat awkward exchanges between strangers mark the first half of the film, but a simple mistake made by a local barista alters the remainder of Kiarostami’s narrative. When Miller hurriedly exits a café to answer his phone, the woman takes him for our protagonist’s husband. The notion catches Binoche’s character unawares, but she seamlessly fills her role as wife and begins to gripe about her “husband’s” prolonged absences and his perceived interest in nothing but his work. Miller reenters, and she admits to entertaining the idea for the barista’s sake, but when they leave the café, there is an unsettling and distinct shift in their interaction. For the remainder of Kiarostami’s film, the pair engages in an unexpected role-playing of sorts that posits them as a bickering married couple of fifteen years reckoning with their fading love.

Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, while offering very few answers, becomes an intelligent meditation on the value of fiction versus truth, illusion versus reality, a copy versus its original. It challenges us to truly wrestle with this notion that affects the manner in which we engage art. Does a copy of the Mona Lisa, for example, hold any inherent value? Or is its worth in that it leads us to the original, thus certifying that piece’s value? The duo entertains these musings applying them to art but also eventually to relationships and real life scenarios. Early on our characters discuss Her sister Marie. For Marie, there is no difference between a copy and its original. For her, ignorance is bliss. Both characters agree that Marie’s outlook is simple, but they disagree on whether she should be applauded for it or corrected. Miller points to the inherent happiness in Marie’s simplicity, but Binoche’s character accuses him of reducing the value of something to its perception. Later on, seemingly contradicting herself, She admires a fountain statue of a woman resting her head on her lover’s shoulder. Miller dismisses her admiration as mere sentimentality, but she admonishes him to value the sculpture through its perceived meaning: in her case, a longing for that kind of love.

After an altercation at a restaurant, the two delving deeper into their roles as husband and wife, the film takes on a more morose tone as our saturnine characters wander like mere phantoms through the streets of the Italian village. Binoche’s shop owner uncharacteristically enters a church late in the film. Whether to pray or to remove a pesky article of clothing in private (as she claims), this house of God holds the possibility of deeply profound experiences. She leaves unchanged, but the two carefully watch an elderly couple literally clinging to one another presumably bound by covenantal love. Focusing on these passersby, Kiarostami possibly reveals his character’s intent. In feigning the complex love of a fifteen-year-old marriage, it appears our characters desperately seek an authentic experience. Ultimately, it’s impossible to fully dissect the filmmaker’s work as it remains beautifully contradictory, philosophical, and at times, mind-bending.

More than just a cerebral triumph, however, Certified Copy also boasts rather skilled filmmaking. There are unique flourishes here, truly indicative of Kiarostami’s handiwork: conversing characters in moving vehicles, atypical camera angles, long uninterrupted takes. In one such take, Kiarostami crafts a lovely shot that frames our characters through the windshield of a car while beautifully reflecting the surrounding architecture as they drive. Likewise, throughout the film, the camera pairs direct imagery with reflections in windows, doors, and mirrors highlighting the film’s overall theme.

Always more concerned with raising questions than providing answers, Kiarostami ends his film on a decidedly ambiguous note. Sitting on the steps of an inn where the couple apparently spent their wedding night, Miller admits to only shaving every other day – something She complained about earlier to the barista in his absence. Are they truly married? Is their love real? Or is it nothing more than a copy, a reproduction to certify the idea of authentic love? Kiarostami only complicates matters when the author reminds his companion that he must make it back to town to catch his train. We are given no answers to these questions, but we’re left to wrestle with another magnificent film by one of cinema’s greatest masters.

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Ten

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(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Dashboard Confessionals

The anti-narrative of Abbas Kiarostami’s docufiction Ten moves along as a countdown. But, a countdown, as would happen in a Kiarostami film, that leads to no spectacular, climactic end. For the filmmaker has always been concerned with the minutia of everyday life, people over dramatic storytelling, and the thin line between illusion and reality on screen over flashy camera tricks or groundbreaking filmic techniques. And thus, Ten stands as perhaps his most bare bones film yet – at least, on the surface. In his first foray into digital, he places two cameras on the hood of a car simulating hidden “dash-cams” and alternates between two static angles over the course of the film’s runtime (with one notable exception). If Taste of Cherry found the director stretching the use of a vehicle in motion for a viable set, Ten is the culmination of his vehicular-obsessed cinema, never once capturing footage from outside the car. So, what could Kiarostami possibly achieve within the confines of the front seat of an automobile driving through the streets of Tehran? As typical of the works of this Iranian master, there’s much more going on in the film than what simply appears in the frame.

Comprised of ten separate episodes, the film follows one woman (Mania Akbari) as she drives around conversing with the various people – mostly women – who populate the passenger seat of her car. In the first segment, we’re introduced to the unnamed woman’s son Amin (played by Akbari’s real-life son) first as he climbs into the front seat of the car. For nearly fifteen minutes, the pair argues and shouts over each other, insulting and name-calling the other. We learn Amin disapproves of his mother’s decision to divorce his father, and he thus holds a very low opinion of her. Akbari understandably defends herself, but Amin won’t have it. Eventually, when the car slows, he opens the door and jumps out in anger. Only once he’s gotten out does the frame switch to the camera resting on Akbari and we see our primary character for the first time.

The following nine episodes play out like this with casual and believably natural discussions between the driver and her passengers. Over the course of the film we meet her sister, two friends with similar relationship issues, an elderly woman she picks up and takes to mosque, a prostitute who she picks up by mistake, and her son a few more times. Slowly, a portrait of the state of women in Iran forms as topics of sexuality, marriage, careers, and societal expectations regarding roles realistically surface during these several conversations. There are no men in the film – save for Akbari’s preteen son who stands in for traditional male dominance – so the film’s voice decidedly belongs to women. It’s a welcome change of perspective for the director who hasn’t dealt explicitly with the role of women in his native country or female protagonists in his work in general despite the daring efforts of his former protégé Jafar Panahi to do just that with his The Circle only two years prior.

And while Ten appears somewhat limited in comparison to the filmmaker’s greatest works due to its confined structure, it still remains an impressive effort from one of cinema’s finest directors, and an important pioneering work of digital photography. Certainly, Ten’s dashboard confessional set-up wouldn’t have been possible prior to the advent of such digital technology. It even calls into question the role of a director as film enters its second century as a major narrative art form. Kiarostami himself was rarely present on “set” during the shoot, subsequently creating the film from hours of footage in the editing room. In this way, it reveals its carefully planned structure as well as the director’s insistence on obliterating the barrier between reality and fiction. Akbari starring alongside her real son brings her own sense of what it means to be a woman to the film as a real-life activist and director herself. She’s not, however, an archetype, and it’s crucial to note there was a fair amount of (loosely) scripted material for these actors to perform. She changes her opinions throughout, has good and bad days with her volatile son, at once questions a prostitute’s profession and then later echoes her advice when consoling a friend whose husband will leave her – in essence, through narrative fiction, Kiarostami captures a slice of real life. It’s especially refreshing from a group of people who aren’t often given a voice so freely in their own country. Ten may make no grand political or feminist statements, but its strength lies in this simplicity. Women are people too – with feelings, fears, opinions, goals, dreams – and with his signature automobile setting, Kiarostami provides them a safe place to freely express who they are.

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The Wind Will Carry Us

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(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.

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Taste of Cherry

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(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.

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Through the Olive Trees

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(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.

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Life, and Nothing More

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(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.

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