Beauty of Life In a Rural Corner of Iran - 'The Wind Will Carry Us' Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

Near the end of "Taste of Cherry," the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's lavishly acclaimed 1997 film, an elderly taxidermist delivers a wise and rueful soliloquy on the value of life, a sympathetic critique of the main character's suicidal despair.

"The Wind Will Carry Us," Mr. Kiarostami's new movie, which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, ends on a similar note. A grizzled old doctor lectures the protagonist, a saturnine engineer a long way from home, about the glory of creation and the human obligation to notice it.

"Observing nature is better than playing backgammon or doing nothing," the doctor muses. Developing the thought, he defines death as what happens when "you close your eyes on the beauty of the world."

By this definition, there is perhaps no living filmmaker as fully alive as Mr. Kiarostami. His eyes -- and therefore ours -- are perpetually open. His absorption in the wide emptiness of the rural Iranian landscape, in a remote corner of which "The Wind Will Carry Us" takes place, yields views -- hillsides, valleys and gnarled, solitary trees -- that seem almost otherworldly in their clarity and depth. And his plots, which tend to unfold almost entirely outdoors because of his own aesthetic priorities and the restrictions on what Iranian films can show, seem to spring from the air and the ground, like those of folk tales or Chekhov stories.

It's easy enough to expound on the spiritual and moral importance of opening oneself to experience -- "prefer the present," the doctor says, offering a Farsi version of an injunction familiar to readers of Western New Age self-help literature -- but it is a rare artist who can prove it. You don't watch "The Wind Will Carry Us" so much as dwell in it. The film lasts about two hours, and the events it depicts occur over a span of a week or so, but the film has a density, an almost physical presence, that cancels time. Its effects seem more like those of a poem or a piece of music than a movie.

But it is a movie, and, like Mr. Kiarostami's earlier films, it tells a story at once perfectly simple and confoundingly oblique. A team of engineers, only one of whom ever appears on screen, has come from Tehran to the tiny Kurdish village of Siah Dareh, which is set pueblo-style into a steep mountainside so that, a local boy explains, "nobody will steal it."

The outsiders seem to be waiting for an old woman to die, so that they can witness the local mourning ceremony. But it's not entirely clear; this may be just the secret preoccupation of their team leader (Behzad Durani), whose interactions with the villagers make up most of the action. He befriends a young boy and a local ditch digger, as well as the keeper of a tea shop ("I've never seen a woman serve tea before," he remarks), and the woman who does her laundry on the terrace across from his.

His exchanges with these people are frequently interrupted by his cell phone. To receive a clear signal, he must race from the balcony to his jeep and drive out of the village in search of higher ground, where he conducts impatient negotiations with the home office back in Tehran, pleading with his supervisors to extend his crew's enigmatic mission. These phone calls, and the cryptic, formal conversations they interrupt, take on an almost ritualistic quality.

The engineer's dealings with the townspeople -- mostly women, all played by actual residents of Siah Dareh -- are unfailingly decorous, but they resonate with a rich sense of implication, almost of danger. One scene, in which the engineer follows a young woman into a darkened cellar to fetch some fresh milk, expresses an unsettling sensuality, a feeling of taboos being tested, even across the cultural gulf that separates American film audiences from their Iranian counterparts. Somehow the movie, steeped in the details of its locale, transcends exoticism.

If you are already an admirer of Mr. Kiarostami, "The Wind Will Carry Us" will confirm what you already know. But if you haven't yet encountered the work of a man many believe to be one of the giants of contemporary cinema, this movie is a good place to start. It's the funniest and most accessible of his films that I've seen, and maybe the most visually arresting. His films require some work and the gradual alteration of passive, sensation-seeking viewing habits. Help in this difficult, worthwhile undertaking can be found at the Screening Room in TriBeCa, which is presenting a retrospective of Mr. Kiarostami's earlier films, including "Taste of Cherry," "Through the Olive Trees" and "Where is the Friend's House?," through Wednesday.

Take advantage of the opportunity. His wide, clear landscapes will be fatally diminished, like old master paintings reproduced on postcards, if you see them on video. And the graceful adagio of his narrative rhythm may turn to tedium in the banality of your living room. "The Wind Will Carry Us" requires the reverent darkness and communal solitude of a theater.

Originally Published October 27, 2000

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