Taste of Cherry: A reason to liveBy Bence Olveczky
Coolidge Corner Theater, 290 Harvard Street, Brookline until May 14
A t last year's Cannes Film Festival, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami finally got the attention he so rightly deserved. His film, Taste of Cherry, was awarded the Palme d'Or, the very same honor that crowned Quentin Tarantino's superbly executed Pulp Fiction three years earlier. While both films are examples of brilliant film-making, they couldn't be more different.
Where Tarantino goes for clever cinematic tricks and effects, manipulating our senses with daring shots and powerful music, Kiarostami lets the imagination of the viewer fill the blanks. In Taste of Cherry, there are no convoluted plots, no visual effects, no accompanying songs or music, no exhilarating camera movements, and no screen stars. Apart from the main character, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), the cast is made up of non-professionals, many of whom had never seen a camera before the shooting. The shots are repetitious, the majority of them taken through a car window.
But by stripping the film down to its bare essentials, Kiarostami achieves something magical. He becomes the guide of our imagination, leading us into realms of ourselves that we would rarely visit on our own. While Tarantino and the majority of American film makers are out to overwhelm and numb our senses, Kiarostami uses his minimalist style to trigger a flow of associations, making the viewer's own reflections an integral part of his film. He does it with tremendous ease, making his style of filmmaking seem effortless and natural. Few, if any, living film directors have the poetic vision and artistic integrity needed to match his achievement.
As always in Kiarostami's films, the plot is simple. We follow Mr. Badii, a middle-aged man, as he drives along dirt roads through barren hills and bleak construction sites. He is trying to find a man to do a job for him and he is willing to pay well. The ones that show interest are driven to the top of a hill and explained their task. They have to return to the same place the next morning and call out for Mr. Badii three times. If there is no reply they are to shovel dirt into a hole where his corpse will be lying.
The film does not reveal why Mr. Badii intends to kill himself, nor do we learn much about his background. We only know that he is tormented by an intense existential despair. His pain is hurtful for his friends and family, Mr. Badii explains, and the logical solution is to put an end to it once and for all. Mr. Badii desperately needs a reason to live. He is like the person who is searching for happiness so hard that when happiness finally knocks on his door he shouts: "Go away, I'm looking for happiness."
Mr. Badii's candidates for the job are all knocking on his door, trying to get through to him with arguments that reflect their own beliefs in the beauty and sanctity of life. After a soldier and an Islamic seminary student have turned him down, Mr. Badii offers the job to an old and grubby Turkish taxidermist (Abdolhossein Bagheri). Accustomed to death, the taxidermist is willing to comply with Mr. Badii's request, but not without first trying to convince him of its futility. The old man, having once contemplated suicide himself, advances the argument that gives the film it's title: "Do you really want to give up the taste of cherry? I'm your friend, and I'm telling you don't."
The dialogue remains very down to earth throughout the film, without anything overly clever or profound. The joy of being alive comes not from our ability to understand the mysteries of life, but from our capacity to marvel at them like a child. It is the taxidermist, with his naive and poetic outlook on life, that brings home the message to Mr. Badii. The ambiguous finale that follows is one of the most powerful and gripping cinematic endings in recent years, and it is still accomplished without any trace of sentimentality or melodrama.
Rather than being a negation of life like the protagonist's own death wish, Taste of Cherry is a very subtle, but powerful, celebration of life. It is not an easy film to watch, but the reward, apart from being introduced to Kiarostami's genius, might be the discovery of another reason to live. And that's well worth risking your seven dollars for.