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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Abbas Kiarostami | طعم گيلاس...‎‎ (Taste of Cherry)

the living and the dead
by Douglas Messerli

Abbas Kiarostami (writer and director) طعم گيلاس...‎‎ (Taste of Cherry) / 1997

The recent death on July 4th of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami led me to review his Palme d’or-winning movie, Taste of Cherry
     As with many Kiarostami films, this is a fairly minimal work that consists, primarily, of a Tehran taxicab driver, Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), seeking out young working men in the suburbs of that city, to whom he offers a substantial amount of money for some undesignated act.

      Roger Ebert has disparagingly argued that it first appears that Badii is seeking sexual partners, a terrible flaw in the film, since what he really seeking is far more horrendous: someone to bury his body after his suicide. But, in fact, the director is making a subtle comment here on the relationship to Eros and Thanatos. We do not know why this seemingly friendly being wants to kill himself, and throughout the film we never discover enough about him to perceive his reasons. But surely it has something to do with the loneliness and isolation of his life. 
      As a traveler of the city, Badii clearly encounters all kinds of living and active human beings—in one beautiful scene we observe two young boys playing in a run-down car—but he is trapped, in some respects, by the frame of his cab, and, in that sense, he already seems to be locked away in a kind of coffin. All his encounters are brief ones, momentary and rather meaningless relationships which offer no real human interaction.

      The best time of his life, he tells a young Kurdish soldier, whom he first picks up, was in the army—a time, obviously, in which he did have, at least, male comradery. The shy soldier is dubious about being given not only a free ride but being taken out of his way, as he attempts to return to his post. And when Badii finally pulls up to the huge land fill, wherein he plans to lie down and die, the young man quickly bolts. 
     The second young man he “picks up” is an Afghan seminarist, who has come to Iran to visit his Afghani friend, a sentry at the construction site. He too could use the money, if nothing else to finish his education. But since suicide is against his religion, he also refuses the job and quickly leaves the cabdriver behind.
       The third and final individual to whom he gives a free ride and offers up the job is an Azeri taxidermist, who has a sick child. He accepts the job of burying Badii should he be dead the next morning, but speaks of his own experiences to try to dissuade the man from committing the act. 
       He too had once planned suicide, but wandering the countryside suddenly encountered a tree of mulberries, which after tasting them and sharing his delight by offering up some of the berries to a group of passing children, altered his decision, redeeming his life.
       Yet he agrees to visit the construction the next morning and bury Badii if he does not answer his call.

        It is generally argued that Kiarostami seldom made political statements in his films, primarily so that he might find it easier to work within the strict limits of the Irani censors. But by choosing the three working-class “outsiders” living within the Persian culture, he indirectly suggests that these three share some of the isolation and lack of power from which Badii himself suffers. Might we not see the young soldier as Mr. Badii before his disillusionment, perceive the seminarist as the former believer Badii once was? Clearly the taxidermist has gone through just such dark days, and now faces financial difficulties and fears for his child’s welfare. Will Badii, himself, also “come through” his crisis?

      In the last scene of the film, it appears that Badii has gone through with the act, lying down in his ordained grave as a rainstorm comes up and the screen goes black.
       Yet, in a coda to the movie, we suddenly see the same scene in an entirely different season and a far more amateur-like grainy movie which reveals the director and his cameraman standing near the “grave,” now a densely-green covered landscape, with a hand-held camera. Nearby a sound man sits in the long grasses and far below, on the road on which Badii has formerly traveled, is a group of soldiers march to the count very much as Badii has previously described it.
      From outside the frame, the actor Homayoun Ershadi suddenly appears, smoking a cigarette before handing it off to the cameraman. With a walkie-talkie the director tells the soldiers to rest by a near-by tree, which they do, smiling at the camera which continues to roll, and picking  off what appear to be mulberry branches, as the only full musical song of the film, Louis Armstrong’s “Saint Louis Infirmary Blues,” plays through to the end of the credits.

       There have been many interpretations of Kiarostami’s ending, some suggesting that it is a distancing maneuver to counteract the dark implications of the film and to universalize the film’s subject, reminding us suicide is not just against the dictates of the Koran, but is forbidden by many the world’s religions.

     Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests the final song reminds us, even those of us outside the movie, that death lies around corner for us also. His colleague, Ebert saw it yet another instance of the utter boredom and meaninglessness of the film.
       For me, what it suggests is that, no matter what actually “happened” to the fiction’s major character, art does truly redeem life. The dead or near-dead, just as the taste of the mulberries did for taxidermist, can through art be brought back to life. Yes, we will all die. But through art such as a film, it can bring about significant meaning and help the despairing believe again. Far from distancing us, I would argue, the film’s ending is a joyful celebration in which the theater audience is brought together in the joy of possibility and life. 
     For the living Eros is always superior to death. Perhaps Mr. Badii should have been seeking out those working men for sex after all. It certainly have been a better choice. The dead woman of Armstrong’s song at least had a loving man at her side.

I went down to St. James Infirmary and saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table – so sweet, so cold, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her, wherever she may be:
She can look the whole wide world over and never find a sweet man like me.

Los Angeles, July 14, 2016

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