Even when he is presenting a straightforward story, Abbas Kiarostami’s films are enigmatic and, I think by virtue of their enigmatic quality, thought provoking. Take for instance the seemingly simple premise of his 1987 film Where Is the Friend’s House?, where a young boy accidentally takes home a classmate’s school book. Knowing his friend will not be able to complete his homework, and that this will get his friend in trouble and maybe even expelled, the boy searches for his friend’s house on the slopes of Koker. That’s it, to an extent, and yet there is so much more (particularly when compounded by the two related films that followed it, 1992’s And Life Goes On and 1994’s Through the Olive Trees).
Similarly, his 1997 film Taste of Cherry is a relatively straightforward story, which can easily be reduced to a sentence. I think it’s impossible to really write about this film without writing that sentence, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers I recommend that you stop reading and watch the film now — and don’t read any other review or, well, even the blurb on the back of the new Criterion Collection release.
Here is the road that Taste of Cherry meanders along: Mr. Badii, played by one of Kiarostami’s friends, Homayoun Ershadi, drives around the outskirts of Tehran in order to find someone willing to bury his body after he has committed suicide. It’s a stark premise that surprisingly leads to a lovely film that, in exploring this man’s isolation, finds beauty in connection.
Badii is disconnected from everyone in the film, including those of us watching the film from the outside. Though we spend the entire film with Badii, we know next to nothing about him. He — and Kiarostami — offer no reason for why he has decided to kill himself, other than that he is sad and suggest that his sadness causes him to hurt people.
Kiarostami even keeps the object of his quest from us for the first twenty five minutes of the film, making us fill in the blank. Consequently, like any onlooker who watches Badii drive past, we simply see an inquisitive and stranger looking past us. The only reason we give him a second thought — which doesn’t mean we care about him yet — is because Kiarostami makes us watch him.
Many of the men he passes, attracted by Badii’s inquiring gaze, approach his car to ask if he is looking for laborers. Usually without saying anything, he drives on. We remain with him, but we remain in the dark.
Mr. Badii is looking for a laborer, of a sort, and every now and again he finds someone who strikes his interest. Indirectly, he starts to lay the foundation for his strange request. Do you have money problems, he asks. He can help. The few who listen are skeptical from the start. I think most of us watching the film would be too. What could he be asking for that cannot be said outright? Is he looking to proposition a man for sex? Kiarostami certainly leads us to this supposition. We in the audience are not the only ones to jump to this conclusion; at least one man Mr. Badii approaches threatens violence if Mr. Badii doesn’t drive on.
Badii finally gets a young soldier in the car with him, telling the young man he has a small job and then will take him to his barracks. At first the conversation is amiable, if a bit awkward as such things go. But soon the young man’s discomfort grows into fear. This is not helped by the fact that Mr. Badii is driving away from the barracks and acts evasive whenever the soldier asks, with increasing insistence, what the job is. “Forget the job. It’s the pay that matters.” We share the young man’s distrust and fear. Badii, at this point, is sinister and dangerous.
The young man, finally learning what Mr. Badii actually wants, is not, in the end, calmed and ends up fleeing. Badii drives on to find another.
In all there are three men who get in the Range Rover to be taken to Badii’s gravesite by the young tree.
Each man comes from a different profession, age, and nationality, and each responds differently. This lends the film to be interpreted almost like a parable. The Kurdish soldier just wants to get away as quickly as he can. The Afghan seminarist, for religious reasons, tries to talk Mr. Badii out of killing himself and refuses to help but tries to stay sympathetic. The final individual, an elderly Turkish taxidermist, promises to help because he could use the money, though he also tries to get Badii to see the beauty in life, hoping to encourage him to live. Each conversation leads to unique discussions about mortality and morality.
I really think the main point of this film is to identify with the people Badii encounters more than with Badii himself, and through them can we start to see Badii as an individual despite his isolation. After all, Badii is looking for someone to help him do something illegal and morally questionable, but he is also wondering whether he will actually go through with the suicide. We know this only because he tells each of them that if he is still alive in the hole he’d like them to help him out of it.
One thing I will not go into, though I want to allude to it, is the shocking and controversial ending. There are many who think the ending is a major misstep in a film that is otherwise a masterpiece. The first time I saw the film I had absolutely no idea what to make of it. I liked it because it shocked and confused me in a good way, and I remember thinking about it a lot, wrestling to figure out any meaning whatsoever. I’ve come to appreciate it as a final moment of connection, and I realized that it has always made me feel that, even when I couldn’t put my finger on it. It’s an audacious touch, for sure, and I’d love to hear what others think.
A few words on the new Criterion Collection release: it’s so great! This was among their first DVD releases two decades ago, and the old release was nearly unwatchable on modern systems. This release showcases the film’s beautiful photography. I loved seeing it this way, since I’d only ever seen the lower quality release.
Criterion has also beefed up the extra content. The release retains the 19-minute 1997 interview with Kiarostami talking about making films in Iran, but it also adds a few more supplements. For one thing, we get the 39-minute “Project,” a sketch film that Kiarostami made with his son as a kind of test for Taste of Cherry; this adds some other perspectives on the final film and shows us some of Kiarostami’s methods and goals. Along these lines, we get a new 17-minute interview with Hamid Naficy, which talks about Kiarostami’s life and career but also looks at how Kiarostami made Taste of Cherry; I was particularly fascinated to see that none of the actors, with one important exception, were ever together (which led me to realize that they are never seen together in the film, adding another layer to the isolation); Naficy also looks at the strange ending. Last on the disc, we get a 7-minute feature originally made for Filmstruck; here Kristin Thompson focuses on Kiarostami’s use of landscape, focusing primarily on Where Is the Friend’s House and Taste of Cherry. With the disc we also get an essay, “Stay Near the Tree,” by A.S. Hamrah; from the title, we can see that this will discuss the ending as well.
So this is an extremely welcome upgrade of a film I strongly recommend.