The Iranian Who Won the World's Attention
By GODFREY CHESHIRE
The New York Times
September 28, 1997
TEHERAN, Iran -- when the 1997 Cannes film Festival awarded the Palme d'Or, its highest honor, to Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" on its closing evening in May, the audience's acclamation had an extra edge of electricity. Two days before, the film's public debut had prompted standing ovations for the director before and after the screening. On awards night, as the applause returned, it indicated a signal event: the first time the Palme, Europe's equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture, had been bestowed on a film from Iran.
In part, the excitement that greeted the award reflected the dramatic way "Taste of Cherry," which will be shown today at 4 P.M. at the New York Film Festival, arrived in Cannes. Because the film concerns a man contemplating suicide, a taboo subject in the Islamic Republic, it has not been shown in Iran and was at first denied permission to leave that country, a decision that seemed ironclad before suddenly being reversed on the eve of the festival's opening, reportedly after appeals and discussions at the highest levels of the Iranian Government.
Yet the response to the film's victory at Cannes also seemed to indicate a widespread feeling, in the year the festival celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special award to Ingmar Bergman, that if the grand traditions of the art film are on the wane in much of the world, they remain very much alive in Mr. Kiarostami's Iran. Indeed, in 1997 few new films draw comparisons to classics like Mr. Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert" or Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt." Mr. Kiarostami's movies not only evoke such parallels; they also seem to infuse the beleaguered art-film traditions with fresh urgency.
Back home in Teheran in August, the director had gained enough distance on the clamor of Cannes to recall it with amused detachment. Even at the time of his big victory, he says, he experienced it as if it were happening to someone else. "You gain it but don't feel it inside," he said with a smile. "You become a spectator, and you see that a man in glasses goes up from his seat to the stage, takes the Palme, says something in very bad French and then comes down again. That's all."
Something crucial is missing from that third-person recollection, however. In collecting his award, the bespectacled man exchanged a polite kiss with the beautiful French movie star presenting the award, Catherine Deneuve. In Iran, where men who win film prizes trade kisses only with other men, this brief offense to Islamic propriety ignited a firestorm of fundamentalist reaction that quickly eclipsed the news of Iran's triumph at Cannes.
While still in France, Mr. Kiarostami went on the rhetorical offensive, giving interviewers, even those who hadn't asked, his earnest version of "when in Rome .Ý.Ý.Ý." It didn't work. On his return to Iran, a special welcoming reception at the airport was derailed by the threat of a protest by rightist militants. Mr. Kiarostami was whisked through customs and out a side door.
Such public dangers underscore the wisdom of the tradition of having Iranian homes face inward. The house in genteel northern Teheran that Mr. Kiarostami, who is 57 and divorced, has lived in for more than 20 years, and now shares with his 19-year-old son, Bahman, is no exception. Though it is situated at the end of a quiet alley off a quiet street, its outward face offers no more than the inscrutable gaze of a brick wall and a recessed doorway.
The Palme d'Or is now ensconced in the house, in a basement apartment that doubles as an office. It is surrounded by dozens of plaques, scrolls and statuettes; with more than 50 international prizes, Mr. Kiarostami is among the contemporary filmmakers with the most awards.
In addition to shelves of film books in several languages, the apartment's walls contain paintings and photographs. Some are by Mr. Kiarostami, who was a graphic artist and illustrator before turning to filmmaking. Other paintings are by, and were gifts from, the eminent Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who has publicly championed the works of Mr. Kiarostami.
If the room's appointments project an air of international urbanity, so does Mr. Kiarostami's conversation. He makes reference at various points to Bertrand Russell and to John Richardson's biography of Picasso. He admits a liking for the American poets William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. In discussing his antipathy toward the sexual and violent fantasies of the Hollywood mainstream, he has favorable words for the independent filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Jem Cohen. Ý
Mr. Kiarostami's own filmmaking began at the end of the 1960's when the loose-knit movement later labeled the Iranian New Wave was just gaining steam. Asked to start a filmmaking section for the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (a Government organization that Iranians refer to as Kanoon), he began an institutional relationship that for the next 20 years let him develop his art while remaining sheltered from the pressures of commercial movie making.
One hallmark of Mr. Kiarostami's work is its esthetic consistency. "Bread and Alley," the first short he made, in 1970, has qualities that distinguish his films up to "Taste of Cherry": a lyrical but concrete feel for the particulars of place and visual atmosphere; a way of eliciting strikingly natural performances from nonactors; and stories in which an anecdotal surface disguises a rich substratum of philosophical, allegorical or social concerns.
The deep, searching humanism that forms the ethical heart of his work, and that has evoked comparisons to Italian neo-realist masterpieces like Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief," was noted in the series of shorts that he made for Kanoon, and in his two features of the 1970's, "The Traveler," about a boy who goes to desperate lengths to reach a football match, and "The Report," a harrowing account of a failing marriage.
Mr. Kiarostami did not consider leaving the country during the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, he said, "because of a revolution going on in my own house." His own marriage was failing.
Once the Islamic Republic decided that a productive, culturally responsible film industry offered more benefits than the revolutionary practice of torching cinemas, Mr. Kiarostami was persuaded to make another feature. "Where Is the Friend's House?" (1987), a simple tale of a rural boy trying to return a friend's notebook after school, won Mr. Kiarostami instant fame at Western film festivals. It also nudged him into the de facto trilogy that would secure his reputation.
Just after a 1990 earthquake devastated the area where he shot "Where Is the Friend's House?," Mr. Kiarostami went back to the region, to ascertain whether his young actors had survived. A year later he turned this experience into the meditative, documentarylike fiction of "And Life Goes On," in which filmmaking itself becomes part of the humanistic inquiry. That was followed in 1994 by "Through the Olive Trees," in which the shooting of the previous film was re-created as the backdrop to a tale about the unrequited love of two bit players, both victims of the earthquake's tragedy.
Mr. Kiarostami's films don't so much avoid political concerns as subsume them in broader investigations, often concerning the ways obsession, compassion and art intertwine. "Close-Up" (1990), the most famous of his several documentaries, depicts the trial of a poor man who gained illicit entree into the upper classes by posing as a famous film director.
"Taste of Cherry" is at once consistent with his previous work and a risky departure. Treating the proscribed subject of suicide, it follows a prosperous-seeming, fiftyish man named Badii (played by Homayoun Ershadi) as he drives around Teheran trying to find someone who will help him kill himself. His passengers include a young soldier, a seminarian and an elderly taxidermist, who advance different arguments against his deadly wish. Ý
Asked if the story reflected his own grappling with suicide, Mr. Kiarostami said simply, "Yes, but that is private." He added that when he was young and watched his father endure an agonizing illness, he thought about the right to end one's life and decided that religion did not offer the "higher wisdom" on the issue.
Is such wisdom the ultimate subject of "Taste of Cherry"? Mr. Kiarostami gives the more persuasive arguments against suicide to the taxidermist -- a kind of natural philosopher -- rather than to the seminarian, evoking disagreements over the relative uses of philosophy and religion that occupied Islamic thought during its medieval golden age. The same question, obviously, can be applied to whole societies. Mr. Kiarostami listened to this reasoning, then replied with a firm nod.
Pierre Rissient, an executive with Ciby 2000, the French company that handles worldwide sales of "Taste of Cherry," says that Mr. Kiarostami "proceeds the way the Greek philosophers like Heraclitus do, or Chinese figures like Laotzu, or Japanese Zen poets like Basho -- the poetry is completely linked with philosophy."
In "Taste of Cherry" it is also linked with Mr. Kiarostami's painterly way with landscapes and light, and with one unusual technique that few viewers would probably detect. None of the actors in the film ever met one another, the director explained. When Badii talked with his various passengers, and they with him, the person in the opposite seat was always in reality Mr. Kiarostami. He would film one side of a conversation, then change actors and film the other side. Considering the subject under discussion, this lends the film an air of uncanny intimacy.
While such inventiveness might seem to have a natural place in American art houses, the United States has only recently begun to open up to films from Iran. When "Taste of Cherry" was chosen to appear in the New York festival, it did not have an American distributor (as it turned out, Zeitgeist Films picked it up last Monday, and plans to release it early next year). But that was all the more reason for it to be at Lincoln Center, said Richard PeÒa, chairman of the festival's selection committee.
Watching Mr. Kiarostami's film, said Mr. PeÒa, "you sense that you're in the presence of someone who's airing issues of extreme importance."
"These are real issues that all of us in our own way face in our own lives," he said, "and so rarely are they treated on film: the sense of crying out to others, of needing others, of trying to create a bridge to others. So few works are able to express that with any percentage of the power that I think this film reaches so simply."
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