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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 04/30/1998, B: Peter Keough,

Burial detail

Abbas on the abyss in Taste of Cherry

by Peter Keough

TASTE OF CHERRY, Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami. With Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolhossein Bagheri, Afshin Bakhtiari, Ali Moradi, Hossein Noori, Ahmad Ansari, Hamid Massomi, and Elham Imani. A Zeitgeist Films release. At the Coolidge Corner.

Suicide, so Albert Camus insists in his seminal essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," is the only philosophical problem. It's a cinematic problem as well -- apart from employing it as a handy plot device, few films (Louis Malle's The Fire Within comes to mind) have attempted to plumb the convolutions of despair and reason that compel a person to self-annihilation. Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry does not resolve the philosophical problem, but he does provide one of the most harrowing, luminous, and ultimately uplifting depictions of the human spirit in extremis on film.

Not that the great Iranian director seemed a likely candidate for a movie on this subject. Although his simplicity veils complexity and sophistication, a childlike exuberance and plangent optimism buoy his works, and indeed children are predominant. And then there are the constraints of the Muslim theocracy under which he must operate, in which suicide is one of many artistic taboos. (Cherry has yet to be screened in its country of origin; it was allowed to appear at Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or, only after a last-minute reprieve from the censors.)

Yet despite their seeming innocence, Kiarostami's previous works do labor under a Sisyphean repetitiousness, especially in the recent, so-called "Earthquake" trilogy by which he is best known to Western viewers. In the delightful child's tale Where Is the Friend's House? (1987), a little boy asks a series of strangers where his schoolmate lives so he can return a notebook. The puffed-up adults send him on increasingly labyrinthine wild-goose chases. The sense of an inescapable maze increases in the trilogy's next two installments, films about the making of films in which Kiarostami returns to the city in which the first picture was shot, a city since leveled in an earthquake, to trace the lives of the survivors.

The hero of Cherry seems like the schoolboy of Friend's House, only his mode of transport is a Range Rover and he wears the expensive clothes and beaten demeanor of middle age. His name is Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), and what he seeks is far more suspicious than the goal of his young counterpart. In downtown Teheran, he cruises crowds of unemployed laborers. They press their faces to the glass (much of Cherry is shot through car windows, the abiding frame of the 20th century), begging for work. None of them seems fit for the "job" Mr. Badii has in mind.

He sets out for the city's outskirts, which appear as a vast, terraced desert inhabited only by earthmovers, outcasts, and children playing in garbage heaps and derelict vehicles; Kiarostami shoots it in M.C. Escher-like extreme long shots, capturing the suffocation and radiance, the isolation and intimacy. In this post-technological Beckett landscape Mr. Badii overhears a young man (Hamid Massomi) on a pay phone lamenting his financial losses. Mr. Badii pursues him, offering a ride and money; the young man, no doubt suspecting a pick-up, offers to smash in the stranger's face.

Mr. Badii is looking not for the pleasures of the flesh, however, but for his release from it. Like Hamlet, he's stymied by what happens after death -- namely, what's to become of his body? So in what is planned as the last day of his life he offers a small fortune to selected members of Iranian society's detritus -- a Kurdish army recruit (Ali Moradi); an Afghan security guard at a cement plant (Ahmad Ansari) and his seminary-student friend (Hossein Noori); a Turkish taxidermist (Adbolhossein Bagheri) with an ailing son -- in return for their promise to lay his body to rest in a roadside slit trench he has dug himself. Each in turn expresses bewilderment and compassion before trying to argue him out of his plan.

It sounds schematic, but not for a moment is the urgency of the matter doubted. Ershadi is at once scary, pathetic, and otherworldly, an undead revenant longing for surcease and dreading it. His instructions to potential assistants sound almost like lines from a folktale: "Look at that hole. Come back tomorrow at 6 a.m. and say three times `Mr. Badii. Mr. Badii. Mr. Badii.' If I answer, give me your hand and help me out of the hole."

And if he doesn't answer? Mr. Badii never explains what's behind his decision because, he insists, no one can understand, but after spending 90 minutes in a car with him you start to get the idea. Then there is Kiarostami's technique for shooting dialogue: the two speakers are never in the frame at the same time, and that's because the director always plays the part of the offscreen interlocutor, making the debate as tormented and solitary as it indeed must be.

Mostly, though, it's in the details that Cherry overwhelms with its truth. The line of troops that suddenly appears over a ridge, chanting. A beautiful cowled woman (Elham Imani) who asks Mr. Badii to take a photo of her and her boyfriend -- the man at the pay phone he had accosted earlier. And the taste of the title fruit itself, a taste one of Mr. Badii's passengers insists once saved him from suicide. It's only after considering the alternative, Cherry suggests, that life's savor can fully be appreciated. Or after experiencing a masterpiece like this film.


A taste of Kiarostami


NEW YORK -- Earlier this year, Iranian President Khatami called for greater cultural exchange between his country and the United States. Soon thereafter, Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's most celebrated filmmaker, found himself in a Manhattan hotel suite, promoting the American release of his latest film, Taste of Cherry.

"The timing was coincidental," says Kiarostami, who had come to America primarily to attend a retrospective of his work in Minneapolis. "The invitation from Minneapolis was initiated two years ago," the director explains, through his interpreter. "But people from different countries are like children. When their parents may be fighting over the condo fee, kids from different households still establish relationships, and they still meet in the hallways and under the stairs. It's through the mass media that governments sustain and create the appearance of a bad relationship. But people don't have any problems together."

The 57-year-old director is enjoying a career high, having become the first Iranian filmmaker to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, last year for Cherry. Also, along with Khatami's accession has come a modest liberalization of censorship. "The restrictions have been curtailed and diminished right now, and it's a better environment for filmmaking," Kiarostami says.

Does his international success have anything to do with that? "No, it's not related. It's just that the pressure was about to boil over, and they had to do something."

Kiarostami is known for his documentary-like approach. His dialogue is largely improvised, and his actors are often non-professionals. In Cherry, the only professional actor is the lead, Homayoun Ershadi, who spends the film driving around Teheran looking for someone to aid him in his suicide plot. During the shoot, Ershadi never actually met the other actors; it was the director who was in the driver's seat, conversing with the players as he filmed their reactions with a camera mounted on the side of the car. Explains Kiarostami, "Within the style that I use, there's really no other way to do it, because you can't pair two non-actors together. If you do that, they can't act, they can't do the scene. So that's why I was using myself as the actor."

For instance, of Ali Moradi, a non-actor playing a young soldier, Kiarostami says, "What we were doing wasn't impressing him as being the shooting of a real movie. Because what he was witnessing was me sitting across from him and talking to him. He kept waiting for us to give him a gun and ask him to kill someone or be killed by someone. He kept asking, 'Why don't you tell me what my part is?' All the time, we were shooting the actual scenes with him. I gave him no information about what we were doing, so whatever reaction you see from him in the film is his real reaction. One time, I asked him, 'Could you get me a box of chocolates from the dashboard?' And when he opened the dashboard, there was a knife in there. And I had used the knife already to cut a pomegranate, so there was some red on the blade. So that's how I got the horrified reactions you see in the film."

Kiarostami's inventiveness extended to the movie's deliberately ambiguous, jarringly formalist ending, which frustrates many viewers. "I did think it was a huge twist at the end. But it was a risk worth taking. Even when I have people arguing about the ending of the film, pro or con, I like that because it means that the movie hasn't really ended, that people keep thinking about it. That kind of energy is a little more important than people agreeing on what they see or liking what they see."

The ending certainly mystified the censors, who had threatened to ban Cherry because suicide is an Islamic taboo. Kiarostami points out that "the government people aren't sophisticated film viewers. Their senses haven't developed beyond is it a melodrama where everything is explained to them and there can be a nice, neat moral at the end. Something that might mess them up mentally, they don't like that at all. They don't realize that the director himself might not understand the ending of the film.

"But to me, to feel the film is much more important than understanding it. Even the question mark you see at the end of the film is much better than leaving the film thinking, 'Okay, the story is over. Let's go home.' "

-- Gary Susman