Friday, May 7, 2010

A Taste of Cherry

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

More than a decade before critics came up with a term for the growing trend of thoughtful albeit at times affectation smothered films featuring protagonists plodding their way through life's dreary necessities (also known as Slow Cinema), Abbas Kiarostami anticipated and transcended the movement. However, as in all arenas of history there is rarely one discreet starting point for a movement and to suggest that Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry laid the foundation for Slow Cinema would be indelicate and ignorant. What A Taste of Cherry does discreetly represent is an apex of the pre-Slow Cinema age of spiritual perambulating over perfunctory story telling, a trait which would later become one of the myriad slippery signifiers of Slow Cinema. More so than its debatable cinematic importance (the film did win the Palm d'Or at Cannes after all) is the film's power as a cinematic metaphor of projection.

This concept of projection works splendidly in cinema because it is bound to the most basic and common manner in which film has historically been viewed. However, the kind of projecting required and unconsciously elicited by A Taste of Cherry is defined by its viewers. Unlike the flash-bang of narrative cinema with its constructs and manipulations, A Taste of Cherry takes away the tension/release or question/answer framework which most narrative features adhere to. In the absence of clear direction and motivation in the film itself, the viewer is left to decide everything. Rather than have questions answered or even have them posed at all, we as viewers have to project onto the film our own desires, misgivings and insecurities. Thus the film takes on a unique quality of assimilated personality and vulnerability.

We enter into a cerebral mode early on as Kiarostami interpolates us not as perverse voyeurs but spiritual passengers. We spend much of the film in protagonist's Mr. Badhi's passenger seat (fittingly this seat was filled by Kiarostami himself throughout the shooting). Badhi drives slowly around Tehran before entering into the city's solitary foothills, all the while eliciting an unknown favor from strangers. As it turns out Badhi is seeking someone to bury his body after he commits suicide. Upon this revelation the film releases some of its former passivity and begins to ease the viewer into a series of episodes which constitute a familiar “life in a day” structure. In and through meandering conversations with three outsiders (a soldier, a seminarian and a taxidermist) each with a profoundly different relation to death (the soldier destroys life, the seminarian attempts to maintain it, and the taxidermist seeks to preserve it) Kiarostami demonstrates, via the reactionary Badhi, man's evolution from the bullying anti-logic of youth to the closed-door spirituality that has little relation to a real, complex world and finally the practiced pragmaticism of the aged who accept death begrudgingly. Each episode is a journey for Badhi not simply through physical terrain but his soul and intellect as well.

If there is a theme in A Taste of Cherry it might be the meeting point of the latter two. Badhi has calculated that his life has no value amongst the living although the doubt that slips in toward the film's conclusion is a telling reminder that value like life itself is dynamic. The same kind of calculation might be practiced on film or any art for that matter. What merits excellence and aren't our perceptions wielded (at least in part) by our pretenses? Badhi appears well off and in good health although his tanned handsome face slopes downward toward his self-dug grave. However, this is not enough for him and while we never discover what has prompted his decision to end his life Kiarostami seems to be suggesting through the film's minimalist dialog that the reason is not so important. For Badhi, as with Kiarostami, the action becomes subordinate to the decision to act.

Of course all this investment in Badhi and his journey evaporates with the film's conclusion. Kiarostami pulls away the curtain of artifice that exists in even the most methodically unmethodical regions of cinema. Handicam footage of the shooting of A Taste of Cherry reveals, however, not the “tiresome distancing strategy” Roger Ebert interprets, but rather an uncharacteristic openness to cinema's largest intrinsic fault: its corrupted imitation of real life. Even in a film as visually beautiful and emotionally haunting as A Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami's willingness to interrupt his own quiet reverie should be celebrated rather than condemned. The footage, only a few minutes worth, evokes a tangible human relationship between people which we retrospectively discover mimics our own relationship to Badhi. The moment in which lead actor Homayon Ershadi hands Kiarostami a cigarette illustrates a sublime counterpoint to the heart breaking final shot of Badhi's face: eyes closed, lit by strands of lightning darting from the heaven he hopes to soon occupy. The closing shot of soldiers (whether they are actors or actual army men is never made clear) socializing along the slopes underlines the intention of this unlikely inclusion: in every act of theater, beyond every curtain and behind every character there are human beings whose lives are the inspiration for and starting point of all performances.

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