Taste of Cherry, 1997, written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
Everyone who has written about Taste of Cherry has to find some way to deal with the fact that this is an incredibly slow movie. Some people describe it as "languid," or "deliberately paced." Everyone uses the word "meditation" at some point. One synopsis reads, "When Kiarostami directs, the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection." That's undeniable. But the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection when staring at a blank wall, too.
People seem to enjoy this movie to the extent that they fill in the long, slow shots with thoughts of their own. I suppose that this is a fitting response to Taste of Cherry, a languidly paced meditation on the unbridgeable distances between people. I think Kiarostami takes boredom as a narrative strategy about as far as it can be taken, however, and although I liked the movie, it's an exhausting experience and not one I would recommend to most people.
The phrase "boredom as a narrative strategy" isn't entirely a joke. Here's Kiarostami describing what he likes and doesn't like in movies:
I don't like to engage in telling stories. I don't like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don't like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don't like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don't like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.
I agree with Kiarostami that there are films that "nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later." I think a lot of stylish, visually interesting, narratively dead films are that way (Oldboy, to name a recent example). But I also think that the best films, my favorite films, are the ones that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you, but for a purpose. And even a slowly-paced film (Andrei Rublev) can do that. But Taste of Cherry is more of a Rorschach blot than a movie; what you get from it depends on what you bring to it, more than any other film I've seen.
The film does have a story: Mr. Badii, a middle-class Iranian played by Homayon Ershadi, is driving around the hills to the north of Tehran trying to find someone to help him commit suicide. Most of the movie takes place in Mr. Badii's Range Rover:
And we see Badhii's passengers the same way. Here's Ali Moradi playing a soldier Badii meets:
The vast majority of the movie is one of the two shots above, or a wide shot of the Range Rover winding through the hills, as Badii and his passengers converse about suicide. Kiarostami does have an eye for interestingly framed shots, like this one, of workers converging on Badii's car to push it out of a ditch:
The flattened compostion here is striking, all the more so because it's one of the few moments that something is happening besides Badii's drive through the hills. And if Kiarostami doesn't care much about plot, he has even less interest in character. You know very little about Badii, less still about the other characters. Part of the point is that you can't know the things that really matter about any of these people; this is central to Badii's view, at least. Here's his answer when asked why he wants to die:
It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it. And you wouldn't understand. It's not because you don't understand but you can't feel what I feel. You can sympathize, understand, show compassion. But feel my pain? No.A lot comes down to whether you agree with him or not. The movie, at least, goes out of its way to make viewers aware of the unbridgeable gulf between this character and our own lives, and not just by severely limiting what he tells us about himself. When Badii's not in his car, there's usually something between us and him, most often glass.
The second still shows Badii either taking his sleeping pills or not, before taking a taxi to the grave he's dug for himself. In a standard film, this would be the moment of revelation; in this one, we see it in a long take from outside his apartment, behind curtains, and never know what he's chosen. The one moment Badii seems to break through his carefully controlled facade, our view of him is obscured by rock dust from some sort of quarry.
Kiarostami keeps this strict distance between viewer and characters, as though he's treating their inner lives with respect or allowing them to keep their dignity from us. But of course, these aren't real people. For me, the most beautiful shot in the movie was of Badii's shadow, cast on a pile of dirt falling through a sifter at the quarry. As long as the dirt continues to fall, there's a surface for him to cast a shadow on; at the end of the shot, the dirt ceases, only the grid remains, and Badii's shadow diffuses onto the equipment below him.
It's a really beautiful reminder that what we're watching is transient and fictional. I'm not sure that Kiarostami wants us to make the next connection, to say that human life is as transient as Badii's shadow, mostly because of the ending of the film. Here's how it ends: we see Badii lie down in his grave, and cut from a point-of-view shot of the sky over Tehran to a close-up of Badii's face, intermittently illuminated by flashes of lightening, as he closes his eyes. It's not clear whether he's dying or going to sleep, and the screen goes black. But lest we ponder the question too long, Kiarostami jarringly cuts to grainy video footage from the making of the movie; we see Homayon Ershadi smoking a cigarette on location as Kiarostami and his crew work on the movie. Whatever imaginative connection viewers have drawn between themselves and Mr. Badii are purely illusory; he doesn't exist. As the instrumental parts of Louis Armstrong's version of "St. James Infirmary" plays over the credits (the only non-diagetic music in the film), we are forcibly reminded that when thought we were watching Badii, we were, in fact, alone with our own thoughts.
- The sound mix (by Mohammad Reza Delpak), is much more subtle and interesting than the cinematography. Sound is treated more realistically in this film than in most I've seen, from muffled and misheard parts of conversations to the distant sound of a helicopter or children. It's also the first movie I've seen where the mixer got a before-the-title credit.
- Roger Ebert hates this movie. From his review: "A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film (which is excruciatingly boring) into something more interesting, a fable about life and death." I didn't hate it, but I'm not planning on watching it again.
- I think that some of the moments that moved me in this film benefited from how boring the scenes around them were. (By the same token, I think Fishing With John is all the funnier for how spread out the funny parts are). I don't think this is a strategy I'm going to be able to use myself, so if it seems like you can do something with it, go nuts.