Poetry and Sufism
By Godfrey Cheshire
Originally Published in The Independent Weekly
Coming away from lunch with Pari, an Iranian-born friend who'd recently seen Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, I kept recalling two things she said. First: "In Iran, people at all social levels know poetry and quote it to each other constantly, for all sorts of reasons. When I moved to the United States, I was surprised to find that this isn't true here." Second, specifically about Kiarostami's latest: "It's really full of Sufism, isn't it?"
Poetry and Sufism. Both are useful coordinates for anyone trying to get a fix on the intent behind The Wind Will Carry Us, a gorgeous, semi-opaque film that left me with a uniquely split reaction when I saw its premiere at last year's Venice Film Festival. Usually if I say I'm divided about a film, it means that I love, say, 80 percent of it and have qualms about 20 percent. Watching The Wind Will Carry Us as someone who prizes Kiarostami's past work, though, I felt nothing less than 100 percent astonished pleasure at the familiar-yet-new fictional world it created. Yet, after leaving the theater and imagining the reaction of someone who was a stranger to that distinctive world, I envisioned an entirely different reaction--100 percent bemused, bored or irritated bafflement.
That division points toward an apparent paradox. A decade ago, Kiarostami's name was unknown in the United States. At the end of last year, the Iranian was voted the most important filmmaker of the 1990s in a Film Comment poll of American film critics and programmers. Considering that superlative, one might think a great new film by Kiarostami could be recommended without hesitation to any cinephile. Yet I do hesitate, for a reason that gets a bit more serious with each new film. His renown is based on six features (not counting two documentaries) that he's made since the mid-'80s. Of these only the first two, Where Is the Friend's House? (1987) and Close-Up (1990), are truly self-explanatory and require no introduction. Thereafter, in ways obvious and not, every film is premised on the work or works that came before it.
No, I know it's not impossible for someone to like or even be totally knocked out by, say, Taste of Cherry (1997) if they haven't seen the previous films. But I also know that critics and filmgoers who have encountered the more accessible films first, and then followed Kiarostami's progress from there, are far more likely to embrace the newer work enthusiastically, while noninitiates or latecomers are usually the ones complaining that they're surprised to be so underwhelmed by the latest Kiarostami.
Ultimately, though, it's not as contradictory as it may seem that Kiarostami is at once this era's most celebrated auteur and still relatively unknown even to art-house audiences. Critics value him because he's developed an incredibly sophisticated and consummately personal film language; many filmgoers are puzzled by him for the same reason.
All of which is not at all meant to warn anyone away from The Wind Will Carry Us, which strikes me as a masterpiece with few equals in recent cinema. Rather, it is to stress that any viewer should go into the theater ready to set aside all usual preconceptions or expectations and allow Kiarostami to work his very special, uncommon form of movie magic.
The Wind Will Carry Us is by no means "difficult" in the usual, heavy sense. It is, instead, mysterious, or numinous, in a somewhat strange, playfully elusive way. Its story opens with a car full of men from Tehran approaching a village in Iranian Kurdistan, where they're met by a boy named Farzad whose family, it seems, has been expecting them. Much that follows is left deliberately obscure, including who the men are (the villagers call them "engineer," a term applied to any educated technical person) and exactly what they're doing in the village. From things that are said as the tale progresses, it's possible to gather that they are a TV news crew that's come to film a primitive funeral ceremony which will take place after an elderly, ailing local woman dies.
As it turns out, the woman unexpectedly clings to life, which leaves the men to putter around the village awaiting instructions from their superior. Anxious for word from Tehran, the team's poker-faced leader, Behzad (Behzad Durani), repeatedly dashes to the top of a nearby hill to improve the reception on his cell phone. There, he discovers an old cemetery and has conversations with a man who's digging a ditch that he says is for "telecommunications." (This unseen digger, incidentally, is Bahman Ghobadi, who served as Kiarostami's assistant before making his debut feature, A Time for Drunken Horses.)
On a moment-to-moment level, Wind has an engagingly lyrical, bemusedly comic tone, with gorgeous visuals (thanks to Mahmoud Kalari's terrific cinematography) and plenty of droll, documentary-like observations regarding village life. There's even a dark undertow that surfaces when Behzad hears that the ceremony he's there to observe involves women scarring themselves to improve their social status.
But far more striking than any of this is how much the film withholds from the viewer. Not only is the story's basic premise left hazy and unresolved throughout, but 11 important characters--including the ditch digger, the dying woman and Behzad's companions--are never seen. Kiarostami makes reference to them or lets us hear their voices, but otherwise keeps them hidden.
Remember films like Last Year at Marienbad, The Seventh Seal and 2001: A Space Odyssey--among many others--that refused to be fully comprehended except in terms of "symbolism"? Well, The Wind Will Carry Us seems to brandish the same refusal, which also functions as an insistence that the viewer supply much of the film's meaning. To do that, one perhaps should start with comparisons to Kiarostami's previous films, and note that this one, his most insinuatingly cryptic work, reverses a number of his usual practices and assumptions: Things that were formerly apparent and available (story, characters) are now deliberately muddied, while things previously unspecified or implicit are suddenly explicit.
The latter brings us round, finally, to poetry. Though Kiarostami's films are frequently called poetic, this is the first one in which characters quote poetry to each other, a device that enfolds numerous levels of meaning. At the most basic, it demonstrates that (as my friend pointed out) Iranians of all different social and educational levels and backgrounds know large amounts of poetry, from ancient to modern, and use it as a kind of supplementary language or frame of reference that eludes banal as well as various sorts of "official" (including orthodox religious) meanings.
On another level, the film's use of poetry presents us with a self-conscious analogue for what Kiarostami sees himself as doing. In talking about The Wind Will Carry Us as well as his work in general, he has referred to his notion of the "half-made film," in which the elements that are erased or left incomplete invite the viewer's imaginative participation. Thus one can read Wind as a fable about modern, technological man's absurdity vis-à-vis traditional modes of life, or some such: The basic point is that the film allows you to interpret it as you will, rather than assuming the kind of obvious, one-size-fits-all reading that most films entail.
Third, recognizing that Kiarostami's influences include modernist poetry of both Western and Iranian varieties, it's worth noting that virtually all of his work has confessional or autobiographical ramifications. Just as he appeared in Close-Up and fictionalized himself in And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry's would-be suicide implicitly contains aspects of self-portraiture. If this is likewise true of Wind, and I think it must be, what does it say that Behzad is a near misanthrope whose attitude toward the village seems essentially uncaring, sarcastic and exploitative? At the very least, it puts a chunky dent in Kiarostami's image as a benign, all-purpose humanist.
Finally, I think Kiarostami makes some important points in the poetry he chooses to quote, especially in framing the story's climax with verses by the eminent modernist Forough Farrokhzad (whose poem "The Wind Will Carry Us" provides the film's title) and the 11th-century master Omar Khayyam. But here we run into a potential pitfall. Is it possible that the movie's most crucial levels of meaning will be unavailable to viewers unfamiliar with Iranian literary and philosophical culture? A recent article by Jonathan Rosenbaum in Film Comment finds it "clear that Kiarostami is addressing global culture, not just other Iranians." Pardon me, but I would say Steven Spielberg and Majid Majidi are the ones addressing global culture. I think Kiarostami's ultimately addressing himself--and perhaps a few other gnostics.
Which brings us to Sufism. The word perhaps has woolly connotations to some, so permit me to amend it to Iranian esoteric thought and to suggest that The Wind Will Carry Us, the first Kiarostami film that abounds in discrete religious references, also taps into the tradition of "visionary recitals" (mystical quest narratives) that illuminates Persian literature of the Middle Ages, including seminal works by Avicenna, Suhrawardi and Attar. (The same tradition has been seen as influencing such Western landmarks as The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales.)
While those Iranian works will be unfamiliar to most Westerners, the philosophic cosmos implied is also that of Plato and, especially, the Neoplatonists. The soul descends into matter and then attempts to ascend toward its divine Source. I don't have the space here even to begin a comprehensive interpretation of The Wind Will Carry Us along these lines (see my article in the current issue of Cineaste for a more detailed commentary), but the key things to note are that the film's spatial dynamics are pervasively symbolic, and that Behzad's quest at every stage involves reorienting himself from the horizontal (the "flatland," mundane reality) toward the vertical, with its opportunity for an ascent toward true Meaning--which in fact is where the film's poetic and philosophic arcs converge.
Only a few decades ago, the notion of cinema that combined the ambitions of poetry and philosophy was embraced by cinephiles worldwide, and practiced by filmmakers as diverse as Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Mizoguchi. Today, even to glimpse this possibility you have to look as far afield as Iran, and Kiarostami. Such an effort can be delightful but also soberingly instructive. For once one allows his films' logic to assert itself, it becomes clearer and clearer that what's "challenging" and "baffling" about Kiarostami's work lies mainly in our own loss of vision.
Originally Published December 13, 2000
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