In Abbas Kiarostami’s universe, it might be said, there are no things, only relations between things. Likewise, in his cinema: no films, only relations between films—and within them. And between them and us.
Three and one. The most celebrated of Iran’s great directors, Kiarostami built his international reputation with a trio of features made near Koker, a village in northwestern Iran: Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987) concerns a journey of friendship made by a little boy; And Life Goes On (aka Life and Nothing More, 1992) fictionalizes a journey that Kiarostami himself made to discover if the child actors of the previous film were killed in a devastating 1990 earthquake; and Through the Olive Trees (1994), in fictionalizing the filming of And Life Goes On, ponders the difficulties faced by people who survived that quake. Critics have dubbed these films the “Koker Trilogy.” Kiarostami resists the designation, noting the films are connected only by the “accident” of place. He has suggested it might be more appropriate to consider as a trilogy the latter two titles plus Taste of Cherry (1997), since these, he says, are connected by a theme: the preciousness of life.
One and three. Unlike the two preceding films, which movingly convey an instinctual thirst for survival, Taste of Cherry gives us “the preciousness of life” via what might be called a rhetorical inversion. At first glance it seems to privilege death. The most dour and constricted of Kiarostami’s films, with a tightly scripted feel that contrasts so notably with the spontaneous, lyrical moods of Life and Olive Trees, it follows a fiftyish, apparently healthy and well-off Tehrani named Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he cruises the city’s outskirts in his Range Rover trying to find a stranger who will help him commit suicide. (He doesn’t want the accomplice to kill him, merely to return to the site the next day and rescue him if his own efforts haven’t succeeded, bury him if they have.) Most of the film is given to conversations he has with three men he thus importunes: a young, Kurdish soldier who is spooked by the creepy request; a middle-aged, Afghani seminarian who’s unable to dissuade Badii with religious sympathy; and an avuncular Turk who works as a taxidermist at a natural history museum and who urges the glories of nature—the taste of cherries, say—as the prime reason not to kill oneself. He, though, reluctantly agrees to assist Badii.
Clearly insufficient as significant anecdote or standard drama, the film’s spare narrative has the opaque, insinuating allure of allegory, or veiled confession. That, during filming, Kiarostami himself occupied the off-camera seat in every conversation we see, suggests the filmmaker revisiting his own struggles with inner darkness. Yet if we read the seminarian as “religion” and the taxidermist as “natural philosophy” we glimpse a debate that galvanized Iranian philosophers of the Middle Ages, and, in Kiarostami’s handling, can be parsed as a subtle argument against theocracy. Or, perhaps this is another Kiarostamian film-about-film, with Badii standing for a fading form of auteur cinema whose final act is its own erasure.
The interpretations cut in so many directions because the elements are so simple, yet their arrangement is so intricately, seductively suggestive. Why does the film not tell us why Badii wants to kill himself (perhaps because what it really concerns is why he, or anyone, would want to live)? Why does it oddly pose suicide as involving more than one person (which is actually true of life)? Here, seeing begins in asking.
With his great formal and intellectual acuity, Kiarostami stands at the forefront of a tradition that includes Bresson, Bergman, Godard, Kurosawa, and Antonioni. Yet Taste of Cherry, the first Iranian film to capture the Palme d’Or at Cannes, will leave no sympathetic viewer becalmed in mere cinephilic admiration. In its penultimate scene, when the figure we’ve identified all along is lying completely still, apparently heading into a darkness both literal and figurative, we’re left utterly alone with ourselves, with our own deepest feelings about the profoundly simple thing that, above all, this film wants us to sense, to savor, to taste: life.
And nothing more.
Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic for New York Press whose writings on Iranian cinema have also appeared in the New York Times, Variety, and other publications.