It’s a perverse world that lets the name of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami remain obscure to the vast Western film-going public. He is considered by many to among the three or four greatest artists in cinema today, the creative force behind some of the most thoughtful and compelling films of the past 25 years.
Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum are celebrating his career with an exhibition of his work entitled “Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker,” consisting of screenings of his movies at PFA and an exhibition of his photography at BAM. The films series runs through Aug. 30; the photography exhibit is on view through Sept. 23.
Much of Kiarostami’s cinema consists of contemplative, intelligent films that probe into the thoughts and souls of his characters, using non-professional actors selected for their faces and for their innate character. He began his career making documentaries about the lives of children in Iran, later fusing documentary work with fiction in the creation of dynamic hybrid films. But it was with 1999’s Taste of Cherry that Kiarostami firmly cemented his international reputation, becoming the first Iranian filmmaker to win the Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival.
Taste of Cherry, showing Aug. 11, is a slow, meditative film about a man, Mr. Badii, trolling through the outskirts of Tehran in search of someone to help him committ suicide. He has dug a hole in a dusty mountainside and intends to take an overdose of sleeping pills and settle into the pit one night, never to wake up. But he worries that he might survive, and so he goes looking for someone who will agree to check on him in the morning and either rescue or bury him.
The film consists primarily of Badii driving around Tehran in his beat-up Range Rover, scanning the faces of work-soliciting day laborers, of scroungers and hitchhikers and passersby, looking for a sympathetic and competent assistant. He finds three prospects along the way: a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian, and an aging taxidermist. Badii engages in long discussions with each as they drive along, contemplating life and death and trying to persuade them to help him.
It is a thoughtful tale infused with philosophical dialogue and simple symbolic devices. We never learn the secret of Badii’s despair, for it is irrelevant. What Kiarostami is really aiming for is allegory. Badii, in the form of his passengers, is taken from youth through old age, from fear and naiveté to religious conviction to aged wisdom and practicality. All the while the truck slowly navigates meandering, desolate roads on its way up the mountain.
The film closes with an ambiguous shot of Badii withdrawing into the hole, closing his eyes and receding into darkness as a storm gathers above him. Kiarostami gives no signal as to whether Badii lives or dies, and some critics have questioned this decision. But there really is no other appropriate conclusion; the ending can only be ambiguous, as this is not simply the story of Badii’s suicide attempt but a discussion of suicide in general, and specifically in a religious society that forbids it. It is likewise just as much a story about the passengers that share Badii’s Range Rover and the ways in which his plan forces them to confront their own beliefs and values, as well as an invitation to ponder such thoughts ourselves, thereby making us complicit in the exercise. “I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to its viewer,” Kiarostami told film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer, [so that] all of a sudden we have a hundred films.”
There has always been a contingent of directors who have fought against the inherent passivity of the cinematic experience. Live theater requires audience participation in the suspension of disbelief in the face of fabricated sets, as well as the necessity of response via laughter or applause. In its golden age in the 1930s and ’40s, radio, the so-called “theater of the mind,” enlisted the imagination of the listener to fill in the gaps left by the lack of visuals. Even silent film required the use of that imagination, requiring audiences to imagine voices and sound effects to accompany the action on the screen.
But full-color, sound-era cinema supplies nearly all that is necessary, and thus the experience requires far less of the viewer. Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry instead asks the audience to take part, to contemplate the value of life, the nature of suicide, and the search for meaning in the face of despair.
But what critics of the film have found most baffling about it is the coda which follows Badii’s ambiguous fate. After 890 minutes of meditative imagery and philosophic discussion, the appearance of behind-the-scenes footage is jarring. We see the lead actor passing a cigarette to Kiarostami, technicians positioning microphones, and a group of soldiers from an early scene in the film are given the OK to call it a day and relax. At first it may seem like an ironic distancing measure, a shallow gesture to simply remind the audience that, after all, it’s just a movie. But the coda is far more compelling and profound than that, for it serves as a life-affirming counterpoint to the bleakness that preceded it.
The presence of soldiers in the shot recalls Badii’s earlier reminiscence about his military service, where he met his closest friends and took part in a group dynamic, as opposed to the action of the film, in which he is largely alone, and never in the company of more than one person at a time. What Kiarostami shows us with this final scene is the reality behind the story of Badii—that filmmaking is a communal experience, consisting of comrades taking pleasure in community, in art, in craft, and in the simple act of lounging together in the grass, with shots of the soldiers taking a break from their soldiering, enjoying each other’s company beneath blooming trees and clear skies. Yet all this takes place to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s recording of “St. James Infirmary,” a song about impending death. It is a gentle reminder, an endorsement of the views of Badii’s final passenger, that simple moments are what defines a life. “Would you give up the taste of cherries?” he had asked Badii, and here Kiarostami gives us that taste, demonstrating in effect that there is much to be appreciated in this life if one is willing to reach for it, and than even a despairing conversation along a dusty road in a beat-up Range Rover is an experience not to be missed.
Through Aug. 30 at Pacific Film archive; through Sept. 23 at Berkeley Art Museum. www.bampfa.edu.
Photograph: Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badii in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.