Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 Breakthrough
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Great art and big ideas can come in quiet, tactful packages. Director Abbas Kiarostami introduced many in the West to Iranian cinema.
By Jonathan Kiefer
“Cinema seats make people lazy,” Abbas Kiarostami told the Guardian in a Cannes interview last year. “They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life. When it comes to showing human beings, complexity and concealment are a crucial part of the character.”
For a masterful case in point, consider Taste of Cherry, the Iranian filmmaker’s elegantly minimal 1997 enigma about a man driving around the arid outskirts of Tehran trying to hire someone to provide his post-suicide burial. What a morbid scenario, you may think. Well, yes and no. Admittedly that summary is a bit of a spoiler, given Kiarostami’s coy strategy of exposition, but it takes nothing away from a film whose poetic force owes everything to the slow burn of its emotional and existential nuances. (Also, there’s a surprise ending.)
For me, question marks are the punctuation of life. When it comes to showing human beings, complexity and concealment are crucial…
The man is played with great understated naturalism by Homayoun Ershadi. For most of the film, his face stays invitingly blank, a hauntingly empty vessel for whatever feeling might be projected by the audience — or by the equally understated people he tries to recruit for his task, including a young Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary student and a Turkish taxidermist.
Why the man wants to die is never fully articulated. Is his campaign merely a drawn-out plea for rescue? Either way, thanks to the confidently unhurried simplicity of Kiarostami’s scenario — this filmmaker specializes in people driving around and talking things over yet leaving important things unsaid — the progress of the man’s quest becomes, in its way, an affirmation of human dignity. The movie is beautiful because it’s tactful.
Could that be an oblique political reflex? Over the years, Kiarostami and several countrymen colleagues have been variously stifled by Iran’s censorious political climate. The film and its director were only allowed to appear at Cannes after a last-minute reprieve from government censors, and Taste of Cherry went on to become the first-ever Iranian film to take the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the film festival. Watch and see why: