Monday, October 26, 2009

Taste of Cherry

The action, for lack of a better word, of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry occurs almost exclusively inside the cramped car of one Mr. Badii (Homayoung Ershadi). When the camera does leave the passenger seat, it's only to film the car from a 3rd person perspective high above, framing the vehicle within the huge, dusty landscape of Iran. Yet no matter how far away from the car the camera moves, the microphone picks up noises around the vehicle as if the camera never moved at all. That lack of aural barriers could signify the decreasing boundaries between people brought on by cellphones and the like, a theme that stands in sharp contrast to the personal separation evident in the characters who ride in Badii's Range Rover.

The film opens with Badii riding around Tehran, seeking a laborer but turning away the throngs of hopefuls who crowd him and immediately start haggling without knowing what the job is. Unsatisfied, he heads to the city's outskirts, loitering around a construction site, but the laborers here all have jobs and don't want to be seen deserting their post to go for a ride. At last, the driver stumbles upon a soldier walking to his barracks, and the young man accepts the lift. Instead of taking the lad to the barracks, however, Badii takes the increasingly worried soldier farther and farther out of town, enigmatically alluding to a "job" for which he's willing to pay a great deal of money. Just as the lad thinks he's about to be sold into sex slavery or some such, Badii finally reveals his intent: he intends to commit suicide, and he needs someone to bury him.

Getting to the plot introduction takes 20 long minutes, and Badii's statement of intent comprises the vast majority of what you might call plot. That leaves a good hour and ten minutes of Badii wandering Tehran and the outlying area searching for someone willing to bury him for a hefty 200,000 Tomans (even if he doesn't kill himself, the participant gets the money). To say that Taste of Cherry has a "measured pace" would likely earn you a tax break for charity: Kiarostami's flattened compositions capture the epic monotony of the rural landscape just outside the capital city's boundaries, all the more repetitive because Badii keeps driving through the same locations. Long stretches of the film pass without dialogue, as Badii drives about with the same blank yet faintly haunting look on his face.

But to dismiss the film as an aimless art picture in sore need of a better editor would be the height of foolishness. To fill the gaps left by a lack of narrative and character development, Kiarostami subtly inserts political commentary and, more importantly, challenges our notions of suicide. Each of the three characters Badii ultimately coerces into his Range Rover to hear of his job is not a native Iranian or is at least some sort of outsider: the young soldier is a Kurd, an inhabitant of a once-distinct region divided among neighboring Middle Eastern countries in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds have long been embroiled in some conflict or other with bigger powers, as have the Afghanis, who are represented by a seminarian. The final passenger is a Turkish taxidermist, desperately in need of money to aid his ailing terminally-ill daughter.

The way each of these men responds to Badii's request, and the dialogues that follow, provide insight perhaps into deeper examinations of the resilience of these immigrants and refugees, as well as an incisive debate on the morality of suicide. The Kurd, a victim of generations of warfare and himself a soldier, simply flees when Badii shows him the hole he's already dug, an indication of a fundamental set of human values that cannot be corrupted. Before he leaves, though, he argues with Badii over his inability to bury a man. "You can't throw earth on someone!" he says proverbially, only for the driver to counter that, when the boy hypothetically comes to bury him, he will be dead and, thus, no longer a person. The seminarian, naturally, turns to religion to counsel Badii from killing himself, noting that the Koran calls suicide a sin. Badii's response is, I must say, one of the most intelligent rebuttals to this notion that I've heard: "When you're unhappy you hurt other people," he says. "Isn't that a sin too?" Wouldn't it be better to free oneself from pain and be with God sooner without lashing out in despair?

The Turk, as a member of the nation that once ruled over the Middle East, initially attempts to break the tension by telling an off-color, stereotypical joke. But he offers the most substantive debate with Badii over suicide, as he once contemplated it himself. Bagheri states that he stopped short of hanging himself when he stopped and tasted some mulberries near the tree where he tied his rope. "A taste of cherry," by which Bagheri means the "little things," is worth living for despite the burden of living. In these scenes, the enigma of the impetus for Badii's sorrow allows for a more universal commentary on human suffering and the acceptability of ending life to escape it.

This is the first Kiarostami film I've watched, and I was struck by his stark brilliance. One might look at the flattened countryside around the car as a weakness, but remember that Kurosawa's compositions were flattened as well. But his shots often contain comments upon Badii's mental state, which is impressive considering we are almost never given an insight into what the protagonist is really thinking. At the cement-mixing site where he meets the seminarian, Badii looks up to see a bulldozer pouring a load onto a massive dirt pile, a vision of post-industrialist boredom but also the act that he's trying to pay someone to do for him. His conversations with potential helpers involve him arguing that he's already dug the hole and he'll be the one to kill himself, so all the aide has to do is pour dirt on him. At one point, some women walk up to Badii's parked car and ask him to take a photo of the group; "It's all set. All you have to do is press the button," she says. Scenes like these demonstrate Bagheri's idea that little, beautiful moments abound in our lives, yet Kiarostami doesn't present this interpretation as "truth" as these moments contain those allusions to Badii's planned suicide.

As I sat with the film, I couldn't help but think of Ramin Bahrani's latest opus, Goodbye Solo. Bahrani has never shied away from acknowledging his influences, and if Taste of Cherry had no impact on Solo's plot I'll eat Werner Herzog's shoe: like this film, Bahrani's takes place largely in a car, between a man who wishes to commit suicide and never explains why and the man hired to drive the other to his grave. Bahrani's film even contains the same juxtaposition between visual and aural proximity. Bahrani sacrifices Kiarostami's more universal and spiritual contemplation, but I have to admit that Goodbye Solo is the more arresting and engaging of the two, not that such criteria make it superior.

The film ends on a mysterious note, never revealing if Badii goes through with his suicide, but far more interesting is the footage Kiarostami tacks on after the fade-out. If we accept that fade-out as Badii's life ending -- we must of course at least accept it as the end of the narrative -- then the behind-the-scenes footage showing Kiarostami instructing Ershadi takes on a profound meaning far beyond the credits fodder that outtakes typically signify. The self-reflexivity breaks the realist touch of the film, but seeing the actor who plays Badii walking around after his character possibly died potentially symbolizes the continuation of life, and that a man's life -- fictional yes, but wholly believable -- is art. I don't know that I'm chomping at the bit to sit down with this film in the near future, but it's one of the most thought-provoking films I've ever seen, and I hope to revisit it down the line when I've studied Kiarostami more.

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