Taste of Cherry (1997)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari
Plot: An Iranian man drives his truck in search of someone who will quietly bury him under a cherry tree after he commits suicide.
Awards: Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Rating: PG for some thematic material.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“I don't want to give you a gun to kill me. I'm giving you a spade, a spade.”
According to esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, Taste of Cherry is “excruciatingly boring”. The film also received its fair share of boos when it premiered at Cannes. Still, it won the Palme d’Or. And quite rightly so. This Abbas Kiarostami film is one of his very best works, a film of such power that it compels precisely because it is that boring. Or so I thought.
Boredom is subjective, and Ebert is right to feel aggrieved, perhaps cheated even. But in my opinion, this extremely slow and near monotonous film is a perfect example of what Kiarostami’s cinema is all about – its ability to provoke without actually trying to do so.
Taste of Cherry is remarkably simple in construct. It centers on a man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), who drives around the hilly desert that is part of his hometown in rural Iran. He stops his Range Rover to pick up a few passengers separately.
Mr. Badii has an ulterior motive: to convince his passenger to help him commit suicide. He has already dug a hole; he just needs someone to bury him the next morning after a good night’s sleep from an overdose of sleeping pills. We never get to know Mr. Badii’s reason for committing suicide, but that is made unimportant, at least in the context of Kiarostami’s film.
What is so much more important is Kiarostami’s insistence we partake in the depressing journey with Mr. Badii for we could learn about what makes us humans, what fails us, and what inspires us. Despite its bleak outlook, Taste of Cherry is at times uplifting, an ode to positive thinking.
Something that has been consistently clear in Kiarostami’s cinema is the nature of human isolation despite being social creatures that we are. Even a wild dog (which we hear squealing, but which we never see) that always seem to wander near the hole Mr. Badii had dug is isolated, dwarfed by nature. Isolation is never Man’s problem; it is as universal as it gets.
The gift of Man is his ability to speak, to communicate. And hence, the responsibility to soothe, to persuade, to convince that life has to be lived. Why give up on the taste of cherries? Kiarostami’s film may be one of the slowest pictures I have ever encountered, yet it engages not in an entertaining way, but in truly profound ways.
The long takes of Mr. Badii driving, and the Range Rover travelling on the undulating land are photographed with skill. The play with ambient sounds is also excellent. All these serve up a philosophical food for thought – Kiarostami doesn’t tell us what to think; he merely allows us the space and time to tell ourselves how to think.
Taste of Cherry is one of Kiarostami’s finest works. It is also a reminder of how rich Iranian cinema had been since the 1990s. Films from that closed, conservative country continue to astound with pictures like the recent Oscar-winning A Separation (2011). Iranian filmmakers (some of them sadly jailed) may appear to challenge authority, but they are only provoking the truth of their society.
Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry may not have been controversial in ways other Iranian films have been, but it still provokes through the most simplest of strokes, yet producing the most complex of reactions from the audience. A near masterpiece.
Verdict: Plainfully simple yet thematically complex, this slow and bleak feature remains to be one of Kiarostami's most profoundly engaging works.
GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)
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