Blurring Truth and Fiction in Rural Iran - "Under the Olive Trees" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

In Abbas Kiarostami's film "Through the Olive Trees," Hossein Rezaii, a nonprofessional actor with soulful eyes and a streak of stubbornness that is as big as his ego, plays a love-smitten bricklayer whose would-be fiancee (Tahereh Ladanian) refuses to acknowledge his existence. Complicating matters is the fact that the two have been cast as newlyweds in a movie about earthquake survivors in northern Iran.

The film, which will be shown at Alice Tully Hall tomorrow evening at 6:45 P.M. as part of the New York Film Festival, is the story of one persistent man's pursuit of a woman who believes he is beneath her. It is also a richly textured quasi-documentary portrait of a rural Muslim society in which the people display a remarkable resilience in the face of catastrophe.

In "Through the Olive Trees," the Iranian director has some serious cinematic fun in the manner of Truffaut's "Day for Night." Because Mr. Rezaii essentially plays himself, truth and fiction become thoroughly blurred. The film revels virtuosically in such Pirandellian paradoxes. Conceived as a fictional cinema verite documentary about the making of another movie, the same director's "And Life Goes On," which was shown two years ago at the New York Film Festival, "Through the Olive Trees" is a cinematic Chinese box inside of the earlier film.

"And Life Goes On" is also a largely improvised quasi-documentary, shot in the same area only days after a major earthquake. Most of the players used in both films are nonprofessional local residents, many of whose lives were devastated by the quake.

Mr. Rezaii was featured in one of that film's more memorable vignettes, playing a young man who describes going ahead with his wedding despite the destruction of his home and the loss of 65 relatives. He tells of living in a field with his wife in an improvised shelter. The filming of that scene is re-enacted in "Through the Olive Trees."

Adding an extra conceptual twist is the fact that Mr. Kiarostami does not portray himself in the new movie. Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, who portrays the director, is a shaggy-haired bear of a man who suggests an Iranian version of John Huston. The way all this theory plays out is much less complicated than it might seem.

Mr. Rezaii emerges as an intriguing, if not entirely likable, character. Now that he's an actor, he announces, he will never do masonry again. But as he pursues the object of his affection, who refuses to speak to him or even to make eye contact, his ardent appeals become badgering. In the film's spectacular final scene, the camera follows him in a long shot as he trails behind his beloved on a course that takes them up and down a mountain slope and across a field until the two of them of almost disappear.

Like the earlier movie, "Through the Olive Trees" combines a panoramic visual beauty with an acute sense of human tininess in the face of eruptive natural forces.

Originally Published September 24, 1994

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