Iran is an enigmatic country, seen by the west as an aggressive Islamic state. At the same time it is a nation with rich cultural heritage. It is a nation with a deep philosophical voice, something that is portrayed vividly by Iran’s cinema.
I have seen Majid Majidi’s Baran (2001) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Silence. Three very different kind of films coming from national cinema of one country. Ten made me curious about Kiarostami for his unconventional style of storytelling. What was perhaps common between these three films was their cultural realism. These films were fictional narratives but these stories and characters were culturally rooted. They contained multi-layered documentation of social behavior in Iran. As an aspiring documentary film maker I was thought provokingly shocked by Kiarostami’s visual language, which made me select his ‘A Taste of Cherry’ (1997) from a bunch of equally interesting international films.
The film begins with the protagonist driving across Teheran suburbs seen in his car, looking for something … a viewpoint reminiscent of Ten. It is not revealed to us what is he looking for and the title sequence begins. In the very beginning the director establishes that he expects the viewer to react to the film by interpretation and filling the blanks left out by him in the story and thus he connects with his audience in a very engaging manner.
Several critics have termed the visual language of this film as ‘minimalist’ and I completely agree with that perspective. Kiarostami uses very very long shots that slow the film down and there are very few ‘two shots’ of the protagonist speaking to other characters. It is not a production limitation though. It is an interesting and unusual way of visually construction a conversation inside a car. A two shot is considered essential to establish that the two characters exist in the same physical and temporal space. By eliminating two shots and placing close ups in a sequence, the director often places the viewer in place of the interaction directly.
We understand slowly that the protagonist intends to commit suicide and is looking for someone who would help him in the process by either burying him inside the grave he has dug for himself or by saving him if he is not dead. We are not aware why the protagonist is planning to end his life. There is very little background information on him. We can perhaps guess from his rickety Land Rover and his behavior that he belongs to an upper middle class family. But beyond that the director forces us to concentrate on Mr Badi (the protagonist portrayed by Homayun Ershadi)
Noted film critic Roger Ebert feels otherwise. He says, If we’re to feel sympathy for Badhi, wouldn’t it help to know more about him? To know, in fact, anything at all about him? And why must we see Kiarostami’s camera crew–a tiresome distancing strategy to remind us we are seeing a movie? If there is one thing “Taste of Cherry” does not need, it is such a reminder: The film is such a lifeless drone that we experience it only as a movie.”
I think Roger Ebert was particularly uncharitable to this film and gave it one star rating out of four. Perhaps Kiarostami’s strategy of leaving things vague for our interpretation does not work for him. But for me it forces us to focus on the current behavior of the character and the central question of suicide and the moral side to suicide.
It is a very unconventional strategy adopted by the filmmaker to provoke us to use our imagination as viewers and in my opinion it is the soul of this movie. Kiarostami has been very consistent with his strategy even while asking us to imagine the hole where he wishes to be buried. The name of the film ‘A Taste of Cherry’ is another example where he makes us imagine what joy of life is, what one would miss. It is important experience because it is extremely unique and individual.
In the end the footage of the making has been used to bring us out of suspension of disbelief and tell us that what happened was merely a film and by not ending the story with a definitive answer about whether Mr Badii is successful in his plan or not he has placed that responsibility with us to bring closure in the story.
It is a very philosophical film about life and death and ethical question related to suicide. It is interesting that the three people who join his car ride have a very different perspective on the question on suicide. The Kurdish soldier is naïve, innocent and he is completely uncomfortable with the idea and he does not want to be a party to the plan and runs away. It is difficult to decide it his reaction was simply out of disapproval of the act or to save himself and get out of the trouble.
The seminarian elaborate references and logical arguments against suicide and says that it is haram or not acceptable to Koran and god. At the same time he does not actively try to change Baddi’s mind about his decision. I feel his view on the situation is very detached and philosophical.
The Azerbaijani taxidermist is a symbol of humanity and hope for me but not without very human contrast of agreeing to help Badii to get help for his ill child. He is funny, quirky, tells him jokes and sings for him. Motivates him to live with his own story of attempted suicide and how he decided to live on. He does not like silence and even when Badii is absolutely quiet he keeps talking. We can see change in Badii’s body language and his anguish and desire to live after meeting him. That is understood when
It is a very interesting film from visual design point of view. Initially the arid, desolate, dusty Teheran suburban landscape scattered with construction sites becomes a character in itself. The long winding roads lead to nowhere and are like maze of life. There are extremely long shots that slow the pace of the movie and often we can hear two characters talking to each other while the camera follows Badii’s Land Rover on these roads. It reminds me of the snowy clad, desolate winter landscape of mid-west used as a setting in Fargo.
This monotony is broken by visuals that are signs of life the protagonist encounters while preparing for his final journey. A couple that wants to be photographed, wonderful sunset he enjoys alone, an aircraft passing through skies. Even the moon playing hide and seek with clouds are signs of life. They are about vibrance, vitality, movement, energy and they mirror the urge to live in Badii’s heart.
And then there is shadow of death. Dumpers pouring soil remind us of the process of burial and his shadow is juxtaposed against the soil reminding us of his chosen path. The protagonist is facing death and the storm inside his mind is seen by us through these shots. The life vs. death debate becomes sharper because we can contextualize his decision. We can neither refute nor justify. We just have to say yes or no to death.
It is a poetic film. It is profound but open to interpretation. There are poetic patterns that unfold verse by verse but asks us to use our own creativity in the experience to imagine and enjoy. Its truly a Taste of Cherry in sense of cinematic appreciation too.