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Taste of Cherry

Taste of Cherry(1997)

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teaser Taste of Cherry (1997)

A middle-aged man, one Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), drives around the dusty hills outside of Tehran. He picks up a young soldier, who gets nervous and suspicious of his incessant questioning. What kind of pick-up is this? Certainly nothing this defensive young man was anticipating: Mr. Badii has decided to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills and he is looking for a man to help him. Not to assist in the actual suicide but to arrive at his grave (already dug on a nearby hillside) at dawn and to bury him if he is dead and help him out of his resting place if he is still alive.

This is the premise and the story of Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 feature Taste of Cherry, the first Iranian film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the breakthrough film that finally brought worldwide attention to Kiarostami and his films. He came to cinema from the graphic arts and apprenticed on educational documentaries and instructional films, working mostly with children, and he brought that immediacy to his fiction filmmaking, where he chose to work with non-actors and develop his stories from real life events. The results are some of the most delicate celebrations of the human spirit ever put to film, from his amazing "Koker Trilogy"- Where Is My Friend's Home (1987), Life and Nothing More (1991), and Through the Olive Trees (1994) - to the complex collision of documentary, recreation and contemplation in Close-Up (1990).

Taste of Cherry confirmed Kiarostami as the most acclaimed director of Iran's rich film culture, which was just getting seen by the rest of the world through such releases as Jafar Panahi's 1995 The White Balloon (written by Kiarostami), Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1997) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh (1996). But where these films (like the early works of Kiarostami) viewed the world through the eyes of children, Taste of Cherry was decidedly adult, serious and provocative. Islamic law prohibits suicide, which created difficulties with Iranian censors (Kiarostami reportedly edited the film at night, to avoid the prying eyes of officials), but it's not really about death. It's about life and reasons to live. Mr. Badii, driving circles through the barren hills, picks up three passengers through the course of his long day. The young Kurdish soldier flees in a panic at the request. An older seminary student, an Afghani, attempts to change his mind, reminding him of the Muslim strictures against suicide. Finally a Turkish taxidermist climbs into the passenger seat, a sympathetic man who shares his struggle with suicide but reluctantly agrees to help for reasons of his own. Through the course of this search, the dusty landscape and the age-etched face of Homayoun Ershadi become familiar, comforting, and finally riveting as he engages each of the strangers in conversations both discomforting and nakedly honest. In between the conversations are long silences and views of the world passing by outside the window, interspersed with magnificent long shots of the car winding through the hills, a tiny spot of color crawling along the asphalt strip through the rolling landscape, as the world continues on. In the distance we see soldiers drill, children run and bulldozers grind away at the hills, all unaffected by Badii's crisis, yet as the light shifts from afternoon to evening (apart from the coda, the film takes place over a single day), it's like the sun is setting on Badii's soul.

The film is a series of conversations between two men in a car, yet Kiarostami shoots each conversation in single shots, as if seeing the one man through the eyes of the other. In fact, the actors never worked together and, in most cases, never even actually met. Kiarostami himself played the unseen character behind the camera in each conversation, though in practice he was less a rehearsal partner or acting coach than an interviewer or, when necessary, a provocateur, attempting to elicit reactions that he would edit into meaning in the context of his vision. "We can never get close to the truth except through lying," Kiarostami once proclaimed in an interview.

Taste of Cherry was criticized in some quarters by never explaining why Mr. Badii wants to end his life; he is apparently affluent (he drives a Range Rover, a sign of wealth in a country where so many can't even afford a cheap car, and offers a goodly reward to the man who will help him) and in good health. Kiarostami purposely kept his motivations, in fact most of his backstory, out of the film so that audiences would engage in the ideas, like a dialogue between the filmmaker and the audience. "Often people go to see a film with an expectation that a story will be told. I do not like this arrangement," he explained in an interview. "I have created a great deal of spaces inside the film where, like a puzzle, the spectator has to fill those spaces." Kiarostami follows that philosophy of filmmaking to the end, where his coda completely changes the viewer's relationship to the story and the characters and invites them to engage on multiple levels. It is breathtaking and beautiful, infuriating and frustrating for some viewers but to this critic one of the most sublime moments of cinema ever screened. Under the documentary-style directness and seeming directness of Kiarostami's style is a grace and gravitas that transforms his austere tableaux into a profound portrait of the human spirit in all its desperation and dignity.

Producer: Abbas Kiarostami
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematography: Homayun Payvar
Film Editing: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi (Mr. Badii), Abdolrahman Bagheri (Mr. Bagheri), Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari (Soldier), Safar Ali Moradi (The soldier), Mir Hossein Noori (The seminarian).
C-95m.

by Sean Axmaker

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