Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wind Will Carry Us

Having seen only two of his films, I'm already discovering what it means to be an Abbas Kiarostami fan. Foremost is patience, the likes of which make sitting still through 2001 seem as easy as watching a Youtube clip. The Wind Will Carry Us, largely considered his best work, does not even bother to establish a plot until it reaches the 30-minute mark, yet by that time I was sufficiently hooked anyway. Kiarostami's direction, while sparse, is not minimalistic, and the way he can capture with astonishing clarity even that which he keeps off-screen continues to fascinate me.

The film opens with a familiar image, of a car traveling on a winding dirt road in the Iranian countryside, a terrain so spare and desolate that the car's passengers shout with excitement when they pass a tree. The "engineer" -- as he's called -- Behzad comes to a village, small but labyrinthine, so complex that he enlists the aid of a precocious village kid, Farzad, to help him around the place. After ingratiating himself a bit, he at last reveals his purpose for coming to the village: he's a filmmaker documenting mourning rituals, and he's here to wait for a resident 100-year-old woman to die so that he can film the resulting funeral.

It sounds macabre, and it is, and there's a surprising amount of black comedy to be found here for those who watched his decidedly severe Taste of Cherry. The idea of hanging around a village like vultures waiting for a sick creature to finally die -- which she never finds the time to do -- is so dark I wasn't even sure at first if it was a satirical jab at the emotional vacuity of "objective" documentarians who like scientists will sit idly by as lab animals die so they can study the remains. Kiarostami inserts numerous shots of Behzad receiving phone calls on his cell but unable to get a clear reception, forcing him to run to his car and drive up to higher ground yelling "Hello? Hello?!," the antithesis of the Verizon "Can you hear me now?" commercials. At the top of the hill is a man digging a well, and the two engage in idle chitchat. The two compare the frustrations of their job: "You're lucky you have a pick axe," says Behzad to the man, jokingly considering speeding up the process.

Yet from this comedy comes reflection as profound as the sort found in his previous feature. During one of his many trips to the top of the hill for reception, Behzad witnesses the digger trapped by a cave-in and summons help to rescue him. As he rides to the hospital, the local doctor explains his philosophy, that life should be loved and enjoyed, a sharp contrast to Behzad's twisted mission. Like the suicidal protagonist of Taste of Cherry, Behzad is losing or has lost his ability to perceive and appreciate the beauty of the world. Yet unlike Badii, Behzad doesn't seem to realize it. That would explain why the compositions of Taste's shots were flattened and often dull, and why the village Behzad visits is such a tangled, unpredictable web: Badii saw no beauty in the world, while Behzad hasn't quite reached that conclusion but is still...inconvenienced by beauty, unable to see the appeal of the village for constantly losing himself trying to get to specific places.

Kiarostami's direction here, in fact, proves beyond shadow of a doubt his masterful skill with the camera, and he's also one of the more unique filmmakers I've ever seen who never dabbled in the avant-garde. When faced with typical situations -- such as filming actors speaking in a car, "fish-out-of-water" city slicker in the country tales -- he makes the choices that no one else would think to make, and thus he invigorates these shots and tropes as if he was inventing them on the spot. As he did in Taste, Kiarostami does not place a camera in the back of a car looking forward nor on the hood of the car looking inward, instead placing the camera in both the passenger and driver's seat, looking directly at its speaking characters one at a time. He also blurs the line between fiction and documentary better than any director since Herzog: as he scans his camera over an alley as chickens run madly about and people wander in and out, we wonder, "Did he, could he, have planned all of this, or did this heavily improvisatory director simply stumble upon a shot he liked?"

And while most films about a city dweller in the country feature the inevitable shots of ragged bumpkins, Kiarostami cheekily decides to not even show numerous characters -- Behzad's film crew, the old woman they're documenting, the well-digger. Is this a reflection of Behzad's solipsism? I doubt it, as that would not explain why we see the young boy or the woman who runs the tea shop. A more accurate (yet thin) explanation would posit that the figures who are heard but never seen are those in some way connected to the story, the crew and old woman for obvious reasons and the digger by virtue of being the person Behzad confides in. If this film is about Behzad's inability to recognize beauty in his work, then that lack of perception extends to those even involved with the work.

"Why," you might ask, "would filmmaking be an occupation devoid of beauty? Isn't the whole point to capture beautiful imagery?" Kiarostami seems to suggest -- perhaps manifest his fear -- that shooting images omits that which makes them beautiful. I'm reminded of the old superstition that photographs steal a part of your soul, and I wonder if the person taking the picture loses something as well. The entire film is a build-up to a funeral, but when it finally arrives, Behzad has observed so much in the village that he realizes that life is too beautiful to sit around waiting for death (unlike Badii, not his own). And so, at last reconnected to the world, he commemorates the funeral by leaving town without filming. This might be the only film where running away is the brave and noble choice, and it's only one of the reasons that The Wind Will Carry Us is one of the most interesting, unique and thoughtful films I've seen of contemporary cinema.

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