Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Life, and Nothing More... (Abbas Kiarostami, 1992)

Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home? was a watershed release, exposing the director to the world and establishing him as a critical and festival favorite to this day. That film's simplicity and profundity, rooted in objective realism but also deepened by subjective camerawork, exists as if outside time. Not until I watched Life, and Nothing More... did I even realize that there are no cars in the 1987 film, no indication that the world in which the film unfolds has any trapping of modernity. This 1992 "sequel," on the other hand, opens with the grind of urban bustle. Kiarostami places his camera inside a toll booth in front of the operator so that the audience only sees the man's hand taking money and handing back tickets. The drivers all ask if the highway is open, and the loud din of emergency vehicles belies his calming assurances that it is. Compared to the muted bustle of children's voices that ushered in the tranquil fable of Where Is the Friend's Home?, Life, and Nothing More... feels harsh and grating.

When Kiarostami's camera jumps from the toll booth into the car of one of the drivers who passes through, the director soon clarifies this new sense of tension. The man driving the car (Farhad Kheradmand) is, effectively, Kiarostami himself, and he is returning to Koker in the wake of a devastating earthquake to try to find the local children who appeared in Where Is the Friend's Home? Accompanied by his young son, the director travels heavily damaged roads to reach the location of his breakthrough film, the beautiful, rustic buildings that made that movie such a gently labyrinthine journey now reduced to rubble. If Where is the Friend's Home? subsumed its conflicts of generations and duty into a benign, lilting trek, the cacophony of sirens, heavy-lifting equipment, and crying babies that drowns Life, and Nothing More...'s soundtrack reminds the viewer how real and mortal the setting for that film was.

Much of this film mirrors the structure of Where Is the Friend's Home? The first stretch of the movie shows the director simply trying to find his way to Koker and Poshteh, the two regions where he shot the predecessor, constantly redirected by road closures in the same way that Ahmad's simple attempt to return his friend's notebook became hopelessly entangled. The director even uses a poster of Where Is the Friend's Home? with the young actor's face on it to try to track him down. Nevertheless, Kiarostami does not simply repeat the other film for self-reflexive giggles but to complicate and even critique the previous film's themes and attitudes. In Where Is the Friend's Home?, the boy's journey is constantly inhibited by the indifference of adults to his conviction. People prove similarly unhelpful in this film, but their silence and distraction now stems from their fresh agony over the loss of possessions and loved ones. One old woman even responds to the director's question with the death count of her family, so absorbed in her grief that anything can bring it spilling out of her. One comes away from the first Koker film under the impression that elders have grown so jaded they cannot even recognize when a child lives up to the standards and values they themselves preach. This film, however, takes the time to show how much can weigh on an adult's mind, tacitly cautioning against quick judgments. (It also deflates the critical view those of us who do not in Iran might take of the elders' behavior in Where Is the Friend's Home? being an indictment of Iranian society and conditioning. This expansion of personal scope reveals a universality to the grown-ups' actions, not only in this film but its predecessor.)

But if the film deepens Where Is the Friend's Home? through tragedy, it also compounds the sense of human warmth and resilience that characterized Ahmad's driven quest. As Kiarostami surveys the heartbreaking damage done by the Manjil-Rudbar quake, he also finds people persevering in the face of utter catastrophe. An old man, Mr. Ruhi, helps the director and Puya reach their destination in exchange for a ride, and his meditative but good-natured thoughts recall the similar helpfulness and joviality of the carpenter who aids Ahmad. Discussing film with the director, Mr. Ruhi gracefully says, "Well, to continue being alive is also an art. I suppose it's the most sublime art of all." Embodying that sensibility is a young couple the filmmaker meets who lost dozens of relatives between them but elected to get married as they planned. The groom-to-be tells the director of all the ways they cobbled together a ceremony out of what little they could scrap and paste together, to the filmmaker's gentle humor and unmistakable admiration. "We thought that we should hurry to set up a home," the young man explains. "The ones who died hadn't expected that. We should go on living and raise a family. Perhaps we will die in the next earthquake."

Such observations are no less didactic than the bedtime story morals of the film's predecessor, but the broader focus and the newfound metatextuality manage to not lose the impact of reality (or verisimilitude) in its self-reflexive touches. The director's boy, in contrast to the child protagonist of the previous Koker film, is a tag-along, but he brings the same sense of real empathy and perseverance that Ahmad did. His ostensibly insensitive conversations, carried on with the bluntness befitting a child, also unlock believable, crucial connections with those still stunned by the devastation. One of the most believable, realistic aspects of this or any Kiarostami film is the notion that something as innocuous as kids' undaunted enthusiasm for soccer is not only a welcome relief to the pain around them but a vital means of slowly overcoming it. Sometimes, even Kiarostami's distancing analysis can fold back into the intimacy of the film's more neorealist stretches. The finale, in which the director is helped by a previously ignored hitchhiker and then returns the favor, could almost be a critique of his own role as the director and a reminder not to lose sight of the real world around him even as so much of the film serves to undermine his connection with that world by proving its falsity. From a delicate fable, Kiarostami expands into a serious (but never self-serious) meditation on the power and limits of art, and he still had one more extrapolation to go.

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