To my greatest shame as a ‘so-called’ cinephile, I have had an Abbas Kiarostami box set sat on my DVD shelf for three or four years, entirely untouched. It is rather sad therefore that it took Kiarostami’s passing on 4th July to inspire me to blow the dust off and finally open it.
Now widely acknowledged as Iran’s greatest ever director, it was with ‘Close-Up’ (1990) and the Koker trilogy – ‘Where Is The Friend’s Home?’ (1987), ‘And Life Goes On’ (1992), and ‘Through The Olive Trees’ (1994) – that Kiarostami established himself internationally. In particular through many of his films, he focused on blurring the lines that Western audiences and directors like to draw between fiction, documentary and reality.
Taste Of Cherry was his feature length follow up to the Koker trilogy, and another international success, winning the Cannes Palme D’Or in 1997. An ordinary man, Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) is driving round a city in his Land Rover. Initially it is not clear why. As he does this we are seeing Iranian society, with people out on the street struggling to find jobs. He stops occasionally and asks working age men if they would like to earn easy money. The motivation is still ambiguous. Are there even homosexual undertones at play here?
This central premise is actually revealed after about twenty minutes, and it is impossible to discuss Taste Of Cherry without giving it away. So if you would rather not know, then please kindly leave the room. And also stop reading.
Mr Badii is in fact planning his own death, and requires a volunteer to help him. He has already dug himself a grave, and requires someone to come the next morning to check that he is dead, and if so, to throw soil on him. He is willing to pay them handsomely to undertake this job.
One by one he picks up strangers in his car, and questions them, finding out if they would be willing to undertake the task. He interviews three people, this narrative structure acting as a mechanism to interview individuals from different areas of Iranian society – people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and seeing how they each react in this unusual situation. This study into the diversity in Iranian culture is always secondary however, to the humanism at the heart of the film. And it is this humanism that is the root of the film’s success.
The film is exceptionally well acted, and there are a number of close ups which allow character’s faces and expressions to be captured perfectly. Everything is very natural. Homayoun Ershadi in the lead role is rather astonishing. For a man preparing for suicide, there is no over-acting or over-the-top emotions. Instead he is the source of a curious sense of intrigue at the heart of the film. He never gives any indication of a man wanting to die, and at times seems to actively be wanting not to. Perhaps he has no choice in the matter of his death. Again, this is another of the many unanswered questions.
The lighting of the film is astonishingly beautiful. For the entire length of the film, regardless of the time of day that it is meant to be set, the people, objects and wasteland landscape appear bathed in a permanent sunset. The autumnal red-browns which colour the film, act as a visual metaphor for the permanent sunset that may or may not come to pass on Mr Badii. And this visual beauty, contrasts with the strange melancholic mood at play through the film.
Taste Of Cherry was by no means universally adored, instead proving very divisive. Roger Ebert gave it 1 star and put it on a list of his ‘Most Hated’ films, calling it “excruciatingly boring” and “an emperor without any clothes”. His larger argument was that people can make great defences of the film, but the case being made does not match the experience of watching the film.
Whilst I greatly admire Ebert, on this one I feel he is wrong. He regales against the ambiguity created – for example the possible homosexuality at the beginning. But personally I find the ambiguity – along with the humanism at play – to be the film’s greatest strength.
The final scene is also very important to the film as a whole, so it is at this point where I have to issue a second warning. So to those who did not leave the room earlier, please leave now. And stop reading.
The film ends very unusually. Mr Badii lies down in his grave. The screen goes black. We wait. In dramas we want to know the outcome, because we care about the characters, but usually the best solution dramatically is to leave the ending ambiguous. And as someone who revels in ambiguity, we expect Kiarostami to follow this rule, and so we expect the screen to stay black and the credits to roll.
Instead, he whips the carpet out from underneath us, as a handheld camera shows us the film set, with the actors wandering around. We see the cameras that we had been viewing the film through. And then it ends. It is a perfect example of Kiarostami blurring lines between fiction, documentary and reality. It reminds us that what we have been watching is not the real life experience we think we have seen, but has just been a film.
Yet this is a problem as well. It is simultaneously a very interesting, original device, but also dramatically undermines what we have just witnessed. As the days since I have seen the film grow, it becomes more and more interesting. But for those first ten minutes afterwards, it is deeply unsatisfying.
In the end, it is a film that undoubtedly raises far more questions than it answers. If you like films to provide you with answers about how, and why, to live your life, Kiarostami is certainly not for you. But if you revel in ambiguity and unsettling, unanswered intrigue, then he can be an exceptionally interesting director.