Saturday, 15 December 2007

Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

There are a select few films in the history of cinema that I’d argue capture the rich tapestry of
existing to the extent that I’d be willing to term them mini encapsulations of life itself. Au hasard Balthazar might be one such film. Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is most definitely another. Having viewed Taste of Cherry for the first time, I have no qualms whatsoever about letting it join such esteemed company.

Kiarostami leaves everything and more to the imagination here. We meet a protagonist (Mr. Badii) in a car, driving around the outskirts of Tehran. His mission is left undisclosed until well into the film, by which point we’re questioning his sexuality as the director plays on our own covert misconceptions of human behaviour. We learn that he is, in fact, suicidal, and is searching for someone to bury him upon death. We do not know why he wants to die, nor are we made aware of his fate as a character. What do we learn from Taste of Cherry then, if anything?

Minimalism is the name of the game, and a pared-down style can potentially belie the concerns behind the film’s deceptively calm exterior. Barren landscapes connote the emptiness of Badii’s soul, and the “slow” pacing where supposedly “nothing happens” is reflective of life itself. But, as is the case with life, things are
always happening - internally if not ex. It is simply the case that others cannot always share in the experience. Kiarostami asks his audience to try and share in Badii’s experience, and his soothing pace affords us the opportunity to appropriately savour each and every image as if it were our last.

Badii’s mission leads him to others that share parts of his journey. A pivotal trio of allegorical characters (rings of
Stalker , anyone?) comment on the functions of the military, religion and science; as well as drawing attention to his country’s multiculturalism – an observation many Western viewers may take for granted. By taking the most basic narrative decisions then, Kiarostami proves capable of knitting a skilled examination of modern Iranian society.

Shot-wise, all inter-car action involving Badii is filmed from the passenger seat. Consequently, we never see him framed with another person inside the vehicle. The audience becomes forced into a position where
we too become his passengers, and Kiarostami encourages us to empathise with the dilemma of Badii’s guests – what would we do if someone asked us to play a hand in their death?

However, Kiarostami aptly presents the other side of the debate as well. By reinforcing his solitude – like the aforementioned technique of filming him alone, or by allowing his immense surroundings to envelop him – the director, complemented by Homayon Ershadi’s tender performance, demands compassion for his protagonist. A lack of knowledge regarding his background forces the viewer to judge him on his own, sorrowful terms.

Badii’s humble quest for a simple burial raises many a philosophical question about the nature of human life.
Taste of Cherry adopts a worldly view of this predicament (as if to drive this home, note how Kiarostami absolutely insists on filming action from the outside). The film never moralises and admirably resists the temptation to get heavy-handed with its subject. One can’t help but feel, however, that Kiarostami is gently nudging both Mr. Badii and his audience to ‘choose life’. The focus on apparently insignificant everyday details, as well as the remarkable u-turn the film coughs up at its conclusion (I’ll spare you a spoiler, but it’s one of the most brilliant ‘twists’ in all of cinema) bare life in all its rich complexities - bad, as well as good. Taste of Cherry invites us to revel in the resplendent glory of it all, and take the knocks as well as the gains. After all, do we really want to miss out on the ‘taste of cherries’, as one character asks? Having sat through Kiarostami’s masterpiece, I know that I sure don't.

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