Taste of Cherry [Kiarostami, 1997]
A mysterious and ballsy picture like Taste of Cherry defies my usual ‘capsule review’ style. It’s mystery is derived from an apparent disregard for convention that is made obvious every few minutes. However, no subversion can match the poetic coda — a weird nod to itself as a critique of cinema. It’s a gutsy move on the part of Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director who carries a reputation today that isn’t far from Godard’s in the 70′s and 80′s. It’s a pleasure to add that, no matter how good or bad the film, it came out of Iran, a place with a politically desperate climate and a crowd of creatives with electrifying imagination.
Most of Taste of Cherry takes place inside of Mr. Badii’s Range Rover. Kiarostami fills the final third of the film with pretentious long takes of undeniable beauty but little force. The most arresting images come from inside that car. In addition, it provides a source of marvelous drama in a gimmicky picture. Badii roams the countryside looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. We don’t start out with that information. Roger Ebert famously took issue with this, but I found it to be the source of urgent drama – What is this guy doing? The performances, by non-professional actors, conjure the ambiguous spirit of Italian Neo-Realism. Most importantly, we are given a striking portrait of Iran through the windows of Badii’s Range Rover. Especially as a Western viewer carrying unavoidable baggage in regards to anything Iranian, this was especially poignant. Everything from workers looking for labor to out-of-focus portraits of the Iranian countryside provides an arresting critique of how we see things — and, above all, cinema. This is made very clear during the coda, but most of the imagery deftly awakens our cinematic awareness. Always looking in on something or out at the world, Badii functions as our surrogate, desperately trying to find evidence of something in an enormous world.
But there is ample evidence against Kiarostami as a prophet of the movies. His avoidance of dramatic convention (after we discover what Badii is looking for) is, at times, deliberately subversive in a silly, rebellious way. Especially toward the end of the film, we are expected to stare at relatively static imagery and be overwhelmed by its beauty. Kiarostami has an extraordinary gift for silent storytelling, but his own awareness of this talent makes him approach pretense. In addition, Taste of Cherry isn’t particularly creative in exploring the tired subject of suicide. The seminarian and old man deliver well-treaded arguments against death. His first passenger, the shy military trainee, is most convincing in his rejection and fear of the subject. The old man, Mr. Bagheri, is like a ghost. His introduction is magnificent, appearing in the car after a startling jump cut. And his words haunt the entire ending — a strangely weightless affirmation of life and living.
Is it all pretentious trash? A stunt? I wholeheartedly encourage you to see for yourself. The New Iranian Cinema is producing some work of ecstatic vigor and subversive intellect. No matter the storytelling value, Kiarostami’s images are composed with thought and taste. They’re amazing to see. Sublime, even. Taste of Cherry walks a strange line between masterpiece and dirt. But it is an undeniably evokative modern poem about cinema and those who watch it.
Either 92.5 or 39.3333, I’ve yet to decide.