A TASTE OF CHERRY (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami is one of today’s most highly regarded filmmakers. His most vocal fans include Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard. His A Taste of Cherry shared the top prize at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s glorious The Eel.

A Taste of Cherry applies to an engrossing instance of life and death cinema’s signature mediation between documentary and fiction. Kiarostami both wrote and directed this complex film; his narrative, though, is a simple thread. Having decided to end his life this very night, Badii (a younger ringer for Kiarostami himself) spends the day driving around the outskirts of Tehran in his Range Rover. He is a (relatively) well-off pilgrim in what, were it not for his imminent suicide, would be called the middle of his life. But he resembles Dante less than he does Robert Browning, who, in the most brilliantly conflicted of all English love poems, “Two in the Campagna,” can’t quite latch onto an elusive evolutionary thread teasing him throughout Rome, a city of ruins haunted by ancient, shifting ghosts. Badii also finds his finite grasp falling short of his infinite passion. He is trying to locate someone who would be willing to assist him in the grim task he has committed himself to. Therefore, he picks up, in his expensive motor vehicle, one stranger after another, interviewing each in turn. His plan is to offer a substantial sum of money—his life’s savings—to whoever will agree to visit the outdoors death site he has chosen in order to make certain the following morning that his pill overdose succeeded in ending his life. This accomplice would also be charged with burying him—unless of course the plan, having gone astray, has left Badii still alive, in which case the stranger would have to help him to his death before burying him. Iran clearly isn’t America, where hardly anyone would turn down a proposal that brought in a buck, so Badii is having a devil of a time finding his Good Samaritan. But, after a few rejections, he gets lucky; his willing ad hoc gravedigger finally appears—a man older than himself and stably employed, but in great need of money owing to his child’s grave illness.

Badii’s course isn’t subject to revision. By providing no explanation for Badii’s death wish, and by so intriguing us that we don’t require one, Kiarostami relieves us of the distraction of weighing whether the “causes” justify the irreversible decision. The decision is self-justifying. The effect of Kiarostami’s economy in the matter also is to situate Badii firmly and wholly in the present, not in some contrived past where he was dealt this blow, and another, and so forth. Such a past, whatever it was, could only obscure Badii’s reality as a character in a film rather than in life. And this is a film; it isn’t life. Now and then Kiarostami insinuates the camera’s presence by his use of windows in the mise-en-scène; but his boldest device—it is the key to the film’s purpose—is his use of a startling ellipsis: Badii’s consenting Angel of Burial isn’t shown, like previous candidates for the job, being stopped for and being picked up; he just pops up in the cab of Badii’s vehicle, seemingly out of nowhere. Nothing so drives home as this that we are watching a film; some of us may even wonder whether we momentarily nodded off and missed the picking-up.

Still, in the course of watching the film, we may do what (even sophisticated) audiences tend to do; by mentally contesting the filmmaker’s distancing strategy, we may “make real” Kiarostami’s fiction—with Kiarostami’s own slyly seductive help, in fact, as he increasingly involves us in Badii’s anxiety-ridden quest to find a burial agent. In short, Kiarostami plays us, moving us the audience in opposite imaginative directions at once. He may deny us access to Badii’s explanatory past; but he nonetheless encourages us into projections of Badii’s possible future. For, eventually, Kiarostami has us wondering whether Badii’s suicide attempt will succeed. If we are mind-locked Spielbergians hopelessly prone to mistaking fiction for reality, we may even wonder whether Badii’s money “saves” the other man’s sick child! Most of us, however, will not go that foolishly far; but we will wonder how things will pan out for someone—a character—who (1) could not be dissuaded from suicide in any case and therefore has no future; and (2) isn’t real to begin with and therefore has no future. Indeed, the resolution of Kiarostami’s “plot” seems to turn on whether Badii ends up alive or otherwise, and our (however misguided) desire for such resolution may prompt us to relax, rendering moot, whatever distancing Kiarostami supplies. We audiences can be a stubborn, silly and wayward crowd.

Up to good even if we the audience aren’t, though, Kiarostami at the end of his film re-distances us. We witness Badii’s pill-taking and, just before sound vanishes and the screen goes black, we see him lying in his “grave”; but, instead of our learning his fate in the next image, we next see something we could scarcely have anticipated: a sequence purporting to show the shooting of the film we have just been watching. Thus Kiarostami implicitly completes a framing device that in fact had no beginning other than the reflection of sunlight off a camera lens—something we, as audience, take for granted. These last images lack clarity; they resemble something on television that is being shot off the television screen. In short, the images are deliberately debased; and jolting us further out of our accepting the film we are watching as “reality” is the appearance of Homayoun Ershadi, the actor who plays Badii, whom we naturally enough mistake, momentarily, for Badii, prompting us to wrongly think, “Oh, he’s alive; the suicide attempt failed,” until we realize that no word or image is coming to resolve the question of Badii’s outcome, leaving us instead—gratefully or irritatedly, depending on whether we love movies—to gauge our dependence on cozy, conventional, pedestrian narrative.

Like Orson Welles’s marvelous F for Fake (1975), another Iranian film that jerks its (Persian) rug out from under us, Kiarostami’s film can justify its prank by the thematic purpose that the prank serves. But Kiarostami isn’t satisfied with merely demonstrating how film audiences may buy into a plot at the risk of forfeiting their sense of its unreality. He is also exploring the fluidity of a line of representational reality that defines the very essence of cinema; for the margin of anxiety that attaches itself to Badii, and sticks to him even after he connects with his morning-after burial assistant, provides us with an emotional correlative to the discrepancy between documentary and fiction with which this film so earnestly plays.

Most of the film, hypnotic, is taken up by Badii’s determined journeying through stretches and turns of barren vacancy—a landscape pitched between somewhere and nowhere, between life and death—and by his conversations-in-motion with various candidates for the job he is offering. Badii’s highly specific motivation, therefore, intrudes a fictional premise in what otherwise might seem an observational record. Suggesting cinéma-vérité, the exchanges between would-be employer and might-be employee indeed take the form of documentary inquiry and response. Whereas, though, the pertinent question in Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) is “Are you happy?” the question here becomes, in effect, “Will you bury me?” Is there a difference? I think so. The Chronicle question is objective; interviewer Edgar Morin asks it because he and Rouch are interested in how others will respond to it—and because Morin wishes to socio-analyze the respondents. On the other hand, Badii solicits comments only as a means to an end, and that end—the help he is after—aims at his own benefit (although there is also ancillary financial benefit to whoever becomes his helper). All this makes Badii seem more fictional, less documentary, than Rouch. Additionally, if we were to construct imaginatively a documentary-fiction continuum, we might place Badii’s patently rehearsed inquiry more to the fictional end and the responses he receives, which are made to look spontaneous and unpredictable, more to the documentary end. At bottom, of course, it is all Kiarostami much as, with its (marvelous) pseudo-documentary inserts, The Passion of Anna (1969) is (brilliantly) all Ingmar Bergman. On the basis of appearances (and what else is cinema?), we may nevertheless describe the generic compound to which Badii belongs as fictionally compromised documentary—a nouvelle vaguelike blending of these two opposite modes of expression, flexible and dynamic, where in their back-and-forth exchanges the more-fictional interviewer is nudged in the direction of documentary and the more-documentary interviewee is nudged in the direction of fiction. To me this is astonishing. Kiarostami has found a way to humanize and dramatize what in fact is the fluid nature of cinema as it fluctuates between its two signature modes of expression.

Thus the gap between the two men—Badii and whoever his current passenger happens to be—is at once a mediating area of conversation and mutual influence, transference and transformation, and a kind of submerged battlefield between determined opposites. Relating this gap or, if you will, chafing space between documentary and fiction back to its emotional correlative, Badii’s anxiety, we may discover that those whom Badii interviews are more fully documentary because they fail—more often than not, refuse—to conform to his mental “script.” As such, they represent some aspect of reality that fiction cannot suppress or totally control. In this light, however they respond, his pickups constantly confront Badii with his own anxiety.

But what is Badii so anxious about? Not death; for he faces by choice his imminent end. His demeanor, moreover, suggests he has arrived at his choice—that was the journey preceding the journey we are shown—calmly, carefully, thoughtfully; the steadiness and patience with which he conducts his search reveals the opposite of an erratic soul prone to making a hasty decision. If not death, then, what brings him such anxiety? Life—its manifold uncertainties, which he hopes the single uncertainty of death will put to rest. How fitting, then, that once Badii has actually found someone to bury him he nevertheless retains his anxiety. Before, it might have seemed that eliciting at last a positive response would relax his anxiety in anticipation of his final rest. But life—reality—isn’t so accommodating. Once the desired response comes, it’s conflicted, after all, because the man whose help he enlists, although desperate for money, must find Badii’s request odd and disconcerting, and because one soul’s needs never suit another’s exactly. Loudly accompanied by reluctance and disapproval, in fact, the last interviewee’s assent is riddled with equivocation. Thus is Badii’s anxiety extended rather than removed; and because of this he follows this recruit—embarrassingly! disruptively!—into the man’s workplace and entreats him for more and more confirmation. The man can only say—it’s one of the most ambiguous utterances in all of cinema—“I will keep my word.” Such a statement can do nothing for Badii. After all, the man’s sincere intent isn’t in dispute; rather, Badii’s intelligence tells him that this man’s ambivalence might yet dissuade him from showing up the next morning. Even as he prepares for a departure from life, then, Badii must continue—and continue—to face life’s uncertainty.

All this gives human, dramatic form to the conflicted nature of cinema as it perpetually fails to resolve itself fully into either fiction or documentary. But more: Kiarostami thus posits anxiety over life as somehow at the very heart of the art form—perhaps even the impulse behind a wider range of art. Our own anxiety answers Badii’s and Kiarostami’s. How ironic that we ourselves feel this uncertainty most keenly when we are forced to face Badii’s unreality; for the film’s blatant refusal to follow Badii as far as the next morning leaves us, to the extent that we insist on his reality, unsure about his fate. Thus are we, presumably (as real people viewing reel happenings) by definition pure documentary, irresistibly nudged in the direction of fiction as it absorbs our consciousness and helps structure our perception of what’s on the screen and what’s off, including ourselves.

Our participation as audience in the quarrel, tension, contest, what-have-you between documentary and fiction, sealed when we momentarily mistake the actor playing Badii for Badii the character, is the film’s ultimate point of investigating its theme. In effect, after the (unreal, fictional) fact, we ourselves become implicated in the “human” exchanges that were made in the cab of Badii’s Range Rover; we ourselves have been drawn into that imaginative mediatory space where fiction and documentary interact. We find ourselves, as it were, at the crossroads, left to wonder whether the film has put us there or, by its exploration of a theme, discovered us there. We are not there alone. Incorporating these crossroads of documentary and fiction, and life and death, is an image that the film repeats and repeats; in imaginative space, it represents the precise point of mutual influence, mediation, transaction. It is a cherry tree. It is the key image of the film. On one level the tree, in tune with Freud’s cigar, is simply a tree—that is, an instance of absolute thingness. But because it also represents the material reality that Badii plans to give up, the tree becomes by extension a symbol of life. We do not have to reach far for this identification, for one of Badii’s passengers even refers to the cherry tree as a tree of life, the sum of all reasons for rejecting suicide. Thus the tree is both objective (thing) and subjective (symbol)—although such a widely agreed-upon symbolic interpretation of tree as tree-of-life blurs the distinction, crossing over from one realm to the other, one world to the next. If we (reasonably enough) identify objectivity with documentary and subjectivity with fiction, then we find in the tree the very flux between alternate modes of expression that is at the heart of the film—of all films, Kiarostami would say. The way he shoots the tree also supports this; for, framed by the camera at a middle distance, with the screen containing the entire above-ground portion of the tree but almost nothing surrounding it, the tree seems to exist at some medial point, between solid earth and the human mind, as a tree of death as well as a tree of life—a kind of natural gravestone; a floral epitaph. As such, it is not only an enticement for Badii to stick around by keeping himself alive but also an intransigent emblem of hard, sturdy, confining limits very much worth getting out of.

Here, as throughout the film, Kiarostami is abetted by his “third eye,” his color cinematographer, Homayoun Payvar, who resists touting the cherry tree’s loveliness and suggests instead an intriguingly ambiguous embodiment of the film’s play between opposite chords and genres. Payvar is also instrumental in helping the filmmaker devise a purposeful mise-en-scène where the landscape outside the Range Rover, in juxtaposition to the fixed tree, breezes by, providing persistent, nearly subliminal visual evidence of the growing pressure of time on Badii, and of the fleeting nature of life. One other contribution to the excellent result of this film must be noted: the cutting, executed by Kiarostami himself. In particular, there is the popping up in the vehicle of the soul whose child is ailing; this constitutes an audacious rupture of the film’s smoothly continuous flow. On some level, surely, this circumstance is related to the several appearances of the cherry tree.

How roots of this film reach out! Because of its ambition to interrelate numerous strands in a complex analytical fabric (like Antonioni and ’60s Alain Resnais, Kiarostami selfconsciously elects to make masterpieces), however, the film falls a tad short of being the stunning, unified achievement that, say, Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More (1992) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) are. Possibly the filmmaker places too much store in the image of the cherry tree’s ability to pull the film’s argument and diverse elements together. But A Taste of Cherry is a towering work nonetheless by one of cinema’s most burrowing and philosophical artists.






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