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Poetic journey

By Michael Wilmington, Movie Critic
Chicago Tribune
December 8, 2000


Abbas Kiarostami's "The Wind Will Carry Us" is a film poem of sometimes humbling beauty: a movie that opens up a new world to us -- in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan -- with an enchanting freshness and austerity of vision. It's about the collision of the sophisticated and the primitive, the misunderstandings that ensue when a modern city man is plunged into the ancient rhythms and rituals of an isolated mountain village. And it's done in a breathtakingly assured, deceptively transparent style that luminously blends sophistication and primitivism in nearly every shot. Photo here

Yet will Western audiences value this movie as much as it deserves? Or will they dismiss it as a film where "nothing happens?" Make fun of its quiet epiphanies and earthy, impoverished milieu? I hope not. Kiarostami is the modern Iranian master whose last film, "Taste of Cherry," won the 1997 Grand Prize at Cannes yet remained a riddle to some American critics and many audiences. "Cherry" was about a man fixated on death, and so, in a less obvious way, is "The Wind Will Carry Us."

In the beginning, "Wind" shows us a journey in which -- as often in Kiarostami's movies -- the goal is mysterious. A nervous, bespectacled city man in blue jeans drives a jeep up mountain roads on his way to a remote village, Siah Dareh -- hewn like an Pueblo community out of the hillside -- where a 100-year-old woman is dying and a strange and disturbing set of funeral rites is set to follow her death. With him is a Tehran camera crew secretly hired to record those rites. (The city man, called the Engineer, is played by Behzad Dourani, the only professional actor in the film; the rest of the cast are actual villagers of Siah Dareh.)

The Engineer never explains his purpose to the locals -- including a young boy, Farzad, whom he turns, cunningly, into his local spy. Gradually, they come to believe the Engineer is after buried treasure, perhaps because he spends so much time fleeing up to the mountaintop cemetery, the only place that his cell phone can function. As his visit stretches on -- with the old woman still alive and the rites unfilmed -- his Tehran backers grumble and his crew begins to revolt. But he also begins to see more closely life in the "uneventful" village: the little local feuds, a romance between a digger in the cemetery and a teenage girl, Farzad's troubles at school with an essay about good and evil. Finally, there is crisis, resolution -- and a camera to record it.

Such is "The Wind Will Carry Us" -- whose title comes from a poem the Engineer recites to the gravedigger's girl as she sits in a dark, cavernous basement, milking a cow for him. That poem is an expression of anguished yearning from a young girl separated from her lover, seeing him in every quiver of the earth, and finally crying out "The wind will carry us!" It is a key poem in modern Iranian literature, written by Iran's greatest female poet, Forough Farrokhzad (a liberal reformer who died at 33 in a car crash), and the fact that most Iranian audiences will recognize it immediately and Western audiences will not is one more example of the cultural barriers that separate us -- and that movies can erase.

When the Engineer recites the poem -- and tries to explain that its writer was a woman just like the girl he is reciting it to -- he is, in his mind, giving the girl something precious. But, significantly, he never sees her -- just as we never see (on screen) the gravedigger, the camera crew or the Tehran backer. The darkness is symbolic -- and death is the main theme of "Taste of Cherry" and "Wind," both of which use the terrifying image of men being buried alive. Yet, both films end by honestly reaffirming life -- not in a tacky, cliched way but by quietly immersing us in one shatteringly lovely image after another, evoking those elemental emotions that the modern world's anxieties tend to blot out: the sight of grass waving by the roadside, or a dry bone from the cemetery cast into a churning stream. And, more than anything else, images of people.

Kiarostami is the natural heir of the great traditions of Italian neo-realism ("Open City") and the Japanese domestic film ("Tokyo Story"), just as Akira Kurosawa called him the natural successor to India's genius naturalist, Satyajit Ray. Beginning his career as a documentarian who specialized in films about children, Kiarostami has always excelled at suggesting "the innocent eye" -- even if he has never attracted the large public that greeted the work of his ex-assistant Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon") or pierced hearts like his other ex-assistant Bahman Ghobadi ("A Time for Drunken Horses"). There's a greater irony and distance in his own movies -- and an absolute refusal of easy sentimentality.

Instead, Kiarostami deals with terrible problems -- poverty, oppression, ignorance and exploitation -- in a low-key voice full of empathy and ambiguity. Life's miseries and joys often lie clasped in a painful embrace. Yearning is universal, death and life among the only constants. But sometimes, in the darkness, like the intrusive Engineer, we may hear a snatch of poetry, a cry of yearning. At that moment, as the poet wrote, the wind will carry us, too. 'THE WIND WILL CARRY US'


Directed, edited and written by Abbas Kiarostami; photographed by Mahmoud Kalari; music by Payman Yazdanian; poem "The Wind Will Carry Us" by Forough Farrokhzad; produced by MK2 productions: Marin Karmitz (France), Kiarostami (Iran). A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:58. No MPAA rating (family).


The Engineer .......... Behzad Dourani


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