Room for Individuality And a Sense of Dignity - "Taste of Cherry" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

For most people the will to live, even in hard times, is more than a determination to survive. It is an unquestioning, ebullient zest for being sensate in the world. This humanistic perception was the rock-bottom insight of the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's last two films, "And Life Goes On" and "Through the Olive Trees," which were shown in the New York Film Festival in 1992 and '94. Both films portrayed Iranian farmers rolling with the punches of nature and almost cheerfully rebuilding their lives after a devastating earthquake.

In his exquisite new film, "Taste of Cherry," which the festival is showing tomorrow at 4 P.M., Mr. Kiarostami contrasts the teeming vitality of Iranian working life with the suicidal inclination of a brooding, affluent middle-aged man identified only as Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi).

Through most of the film, this character, whom Mr. Ershadi imbues with a quiet, smoldering bitterness, drives around the parched hills outside Teheran in a dusty white Range Rover, accosting strangers, interviewing them and asking them to assist him in a suicidal ritual. For a fee of 200,000 tomans (what a soldier would make in six months), he asks one man after another to accompany him to a predetermined grave site on the side of a hill and to return the next day to bury his dead body. In the unlikely possibility that Mr. Badii hasn't died from an overdose of sleeping pills taken the night before, the man designated to bury him is to help him to his feet.

If this grim scenario suggests one of Ingmar Bergman's bleaker cinematic meditations, "Taste of Cherry" is a long way from being a tormented probing into the soul's dark night. Mr. Badii's anguish is never explained, and he appears to be physically healthy and materially comfortable. He has just lost some instinctive knack.

Until he meets up with a wizened old taxidermist who tells him the story of his own failed suicide attempt decades earlier, Mr. Badii finds no takers for his scheme, despite the reward. His first prospective client is an impoverished young soldier who flees the Range Rover in terror when Mr. Badii makes his proposition. The second is an Afghan refugee who is a security guard at a lonely desert outpost. The third, another Afghan, is an articulate Islamic seminarian (Mir Hossein Nouri) who lectures Mr. Badii calmly on the Muslim strictures against suicide.

Mr. Kiarostami, like no other filmmaker, has a vision of human scale that is simultaneously epic and precisely minuscule. While each of the men Mr. Badii approaches is a vivid, autonomous individual with a rich personal history and an innate sense of dignity, each is also seen as part of the human anthill.

The camera continually draws back for long shots of soldiers marching in formation over the harsh landscape and of workers moving enormous piles of red dirt and rock with heavy equipment. Dogs bark in the distance, the wind blows, flocks of crows circle and descend and rise. You feel the pulse and rhythms of earthly life on a grand scale. The breadth and fullness of this calm, orderly vision of people going about their business in a world that looks abundant, even beautiful, despite its aridity is idyllic if austere.

But it isn't until Mr. Badii meets the taxidermist, who is carrying a bunch of freshly killed quail for a natural-history museum class in stuffing birds, that the film finds a lyrical voice to match its powerful visual imagery. His gorgeous, rough-hewn soliloquy about regaining his zest for living after trying to hang himself from a mulberry tree is a simple, eloquent parable of the senses opening to the refreshment of life's simple pleasures.

"The House Is Black," a short film that precedes "Taste of Cherry," is a 21-minute documentary made in 1962 about life in a leper colony. Images of excruciating suffering and courage are accompanied by the reading of a somber poem by the Iranian director and poet Forough Farrokhzad.

Originally Published September 27, 1997

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