Friday, 16 March 2007

Ta'm e guilass (1997) - Abbas Kiarostami

The Palme D'or-winning Taste Of Cherry, from acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, stars Homayon Ershadi as a man on a mission. Our protagonist, Mr Badii, spends practically the entire film in his Land Rover, driving back and forth from a spot up on the mountainside surrounding Teheran - atthis spot is a tree, and next to it the hole he has dug into whcih he is going to fall asleep. All he wants is for someone to come to the hole the next morning to call his name three times, if he does not answer then that person is to fill in the hole with earth. Kiarostami's film is not concerned with why he is going to commit suicide, nor is it particularly concerned with whether he can actually go through with it - what this film spends 95 minutes exploring is the debate as to whether he should or not. Slowly, but surely, in this jeep between this Iranian and his passengers, a subtle lust for life emerges - the yearning to taste cherries once again.

Taste of Cherry is first and foremost a wonderful piece of writing - a fantastic character study, combined with a sublime lead performance from a relatively unknown actor who carries off the most lengthy of monologues with ease. In asking these strangers to do this job for him, we learn not only of Mr Badii's depression, but also of the state of the country around him. A country in which labourers, as important as they are rarely receieve the wages that perhaps they should. It's an economic injustice that Mr Badii uses to entice these people into doing this task. Though it has to be said that in the end only one person actualy accepts the job - a soldier freaks out and runs off down the mountain whereas a seminary simply declines upon being given the full picture of what is to be expected of him. It is no mistake then, that the one person who accepts should be a Taxidermist, a man who makes a living from stuffing dead animals now being asked to bury someone who is going to have killed himself. The in-car debate with the seminary yields some interesting moral and religious aspects to the suicide debate, although this is restricted by the shortcomings of the seminary's strict dogma, and his unwavering belief in that philosophy - dogmatic philosophy that does not afflict the opinion of the taxidermist.

The Taxidermist is the most resonant of the characters, lingering long in the memory after the film has finished with his joke about a Turk going to the doctors ("Your body's fine but your finger's broken") and his genuine attempts to listen to this strange man contemplating suicide, engaging him on a personal, uniquely humanist level revealing that he himself once contemplated the same act years before. There is a degree of sentimentality in his "taste of cherry" comment, enough at least that i was reminded of Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (although i really can't understate the connection enough), but it's a genuine, loving affection for existence rather than faux sentiment that veers into horrible cliché. The film's final third, it's heart and soul, is [thankfully] gratifyingly warm - more than making up for it's morbid concept.

This heart and soul would however, amount to little if it were not for Kiarostami's impeccable visual style and sense of pacing. The slow, brooding, methodical pace of the narrative seeks only to confirm and enhance the natural feel of the movie whilst its impressive visuals not only supply aesthetic delights of their own, but also elucidate the story's emotional complexity. The emotional glaciation of Mr Badii, his distance from the world around him, even from his family who he has chosen to leave behind, is made all the more clear through the use of telephoto long shots, wide-angled close-ups and the vast expanse of the Iranian terrain. The size of the country dwarfs his Land Rover, just as whatever force is pushing him into this act is making Mr Badii feel so inferior to those around him that he cannot carry on. This 'empty' visual style owes a lot to the likes of Theo Angelopoulos and Michelangelo Antonioni (both of whom have become reknowned for thier depiction of alienation and distance onscreen), at least as much as the film's seeming coldness towards the people within it does. The closest film to this visually, that i can recall from recent years is the Turkish film Uzak from director/photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan who must have either seen this film, or another Kiarostami work such is the similarity in some scenes between the two.

I do have one reservation though, or if not a reservation then certainly it is something that has left me perplexed to say the least, and that's the end of the film. I can't say what happens, as that would spoil it for those who havent seen the film, but i can say something as to my own thoughts on how the film reaches a conclusion (if that's what it can be called?). I had to do a little looking around to check if there was any reaon for the chosen ending remaining in the film - and it turns out that there was a problem at the lab where the film was being developed, so at the very least there is a practical reason for its applicatio. But Kiarostami doesn't strike me as the sort of artist who, facing the problem of not having the ending he intially wanted to the film, would just settle in the cutting room for something superfluous to narrative requirements. So what is the purpose? The first name that came to my mind was Michael Haneke (specifically his soon to be remade Funny Games), a director whose treatment of the limitiations of cinema (and the artificiality of its construction) form part of his distinct yet unique style; another that i've seen in discussion is Alejandro Jodorowsky (specifically in relation to The Holy Mountain).

Both of these names seem to be close to, and a million miles away from what Abbas is doing. He is drawing attention to the artifice inherent within the medium of film, but it is not a ploy or trick - indeed it's a futherance, or natural continuation of the plot and focus of the film i.e. emotional isolation. Perhaps only through reminding the audience that we are just watchinga movie, can the audience every hope to appreciate just how distanced the protagonist feels from the world around him. By forcibly tearing his audience from the fiction of the narrative, Kiarostami has shown at once bravery (in having the cojones to finsh a film like that) and incredible luciduty of vision in letting the emotional subtext of the movie (and often alck of it) supercede the story itself in the un(?)dramatic denouement.

An unforgettable film, that we are probably not meant to love - rather one for reflection, pondering and endless discussion. 8/10


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