Life Goes On - "Taste of Cherry" Review
By Jeffrey M. Anderson Combustible Celluloid
"Taste of Cherry," by veteran Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, is a most extraordinary movie. I can factually say that I have never seen another movie quite like it; at least not made in the past 3 decades. It has won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (shared with Shohei Imamura's "The Eel"). It has been proclaimed a masterpiece by The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Film Comment and Time Magazine, as well as internationally acclaimed filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa. It deserves comparison to some of history's most thoughtful and poetic films; Jean-Luc Godard's "Vivre Sa Vie," Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low," Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," and Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." It's now available on a lovely Criterion DVD.
"Taste of Cherry" begins deceptively simple. A man, who we later come to know as Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), drives around. His face is sad and shaggy. He looks not terribly unlike Johnny Cash (ten miles of bad road). Unemployed men on the street ask him if he's looking for workers. He is, but none of them will do. He finds someone he likes, but he is told to shove off. He meets a man who collects plastic bags for a living. This man won't get in the car. We wonder if Mr. Badii is trying to pick up a lover?
The next person is a soldier. Mr. Badii takes the soldier for a ride up into the hills of Tehran. We learn what the job is. Mr. Badii is going to take sleeping pills, lie down in a hole, and go to sleep. The young soldier is to come at 6 AM, help Mr. Badii up if he is alive, throw dirt on him if he is dead. There is a large sum of money as pay.
The soldier runs away, terrified. We meet more candidates for the job; a security guard, a studying seminarian, who argues religion with Mr. Badii, and finally, a taxidermist. The taxidermist tells a vivid story of how he almost committed suicide decades before, but was saved when he ate a mulberry. The taxidermist agrees to do the job.
Mr. Badii takes a taxi out to the hole, smokes a cigarette, lies down, looks at the moon for a while. It begins to rain. Then, we cut to black, and come up on video footage of soldiers marching in the hills. Is Mr. Badii dead? No, that's him walking around smoking a cigarette. Who are these other people? The film crew! That's not Mr. Badii, but the actor who played him. We watch the film crew for a while, some of the extras playing soldiers smile at the camera and tease each other. We listen to the sounds in the hills. The end.
Of course, Kiarostami is simply saying, "life goes on." At first, my senses were jarred. I needed to know what happened to Mr. Badii, but I soon realized that that's not important. What's important is me, and the others in the audience, and the people I'll meet on the street outside. Life goes on. (Kiarostami in fact made a 1992 film called "And Life Goes On...") It's a simple message, but stated powerfully and thoughtfully. On the other hand, we never find out why Mr. Badii wants to kill himself. He has money, and he seems healthy. His arguments for suicide are just as valid as others' arguments for life.
But it's not just the ending that gets you. Each and every image and sound is perfectly and vividly crafted. The shots are long and slow. We spend a great deal of time inside Mr. Badii's car, looking at him, looking at the passing countryside. We spend a great deal of time talking to people, mostly Mr. Badii asking questions, interviewing for the "job." Each of the characters has their own moral values, their own life story, their own opinions. They each seem like actual people. Even though they're speaking Farsi and I'm reading the subtitles, their language and attitudes seem alive and true. When Mr. Badii leaves the car, the camera still stays on him, looking at him from outside windows. We hear the person he converses with, but can only see Mr. Badii.
At one point, Mr. Badii stops at a quarry and watches as giant machines move dirt around. It's difficult to describe, but these shots are exquisitely beautiful, even though we're only looking at dirt. The whole film is like this; shots of barren hills, sad people, and lonely towns, but beautiful. Most directors try to either make self-consciously beautiful shots, or try to imbue their shots with "meaning." Kiarostami has made meaning and poetry out of what seems like nothing.
And that's not all. He achieves the same effect with sounds; wind blowing, birds calling, the tires of the car popping over pebbles. Occasionally, a blast of wind or a horn will obscure someone's dialogue. The characters then have to repeat themselves, one of those simple things that happens in life that's often left out of movies. In another scene, Mr. Badii accidentally runs off the road. A group of workers come running over, at first laughing at him, then helping him. It's easy to imagine how a more conventional director would have handled this scene. Most would have simply left it out because it doesn't advance the plot, but in "Taste of Cherry," it's just one more example of how life goes on.
Akira Kurosawa said about the films of Abbas Kiarostami: "words cannot describe my feelings about them. I simply advise you to see his films." He has been making films in Iran since 1969, but few of them have reached the U.S. (understandably, due to our past relations with Iran). The films which have made it here are: "Close-Up" (1990), "Through the Olive Trees" (1994), and the excellent "The White Balloon" (1995), for which Kiarostami contributed the screenplay. "Taste of Cherry" is my first Kiarostami film, and I think it's a masterwork.
Originally Published May 8, 1998
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