Watching the great modern Iranian film by the great modern Iranian director, it’s a slippery path for any reviewer to bog oneself down in the essence of the film’s commentary on Iranian society (indeed, it is a crutch, if not a fallacy, to turn any review of a film into an expression of nation’s cinema, as thought cinema is exclusively about the nation it derives from or as though a national cinema is a monolith). One can be sure that Taste of Cherry has notable comments on modern-day Iran and the intersection of religion and governance unique to that nation, but this Beckettian existential drama can be contained by no nation, no person, and no theme.
So Iran is there if Iran is what you want, but it strikes me as inopportune to apply the lens of Iran to the film rather than to read flickers of Iran from the film itself, but then this is part of the film’s minimalist dialectical question rooted in Kiarostami’s famous claim that half of his films come from the mind of the viewer. Meaning here isn’t directed, deterministic, or hovered over by a deadline such as the end of the film, just as the channels of thought are more fluxional and unforetold, less obviously virtuous than the way conventional cinema appends dogmatic readings through singular, linear mechanisms. At their worst, films can become machine readings. Input symbol X and derive meaning Y.
Some of the most notable machines in Western cinema are the people, fixed characters often driven by rigid psychologies or essential selves notable because they control the world or because the world revolves around them, harming people only in ways which reinforce their worth as individuals. Kiarostami’s film is less conscripted by the Western Enlightenment view of human virility and volition. People retain an individuality but the world isn’t driven by individualism – Kiarostami’s neo-realist impulses and his camera, presenting glimpses of outside life passing the film by, acclimatizing us to the missed opportunities in the film and the perspectives it can’t capture, ensure that we are always attuned to the incompleteness of any film’s vision of the world, especially ones that focus on only individual people. Indeed, national, linear, symbolic, or individualistic meanings slip out from under us watching the film, which instead reminds us of how passing and temporal any one meaning or interpretation of another person, or the world, can be.
The same ineffable notion of unfixed humanity also holds true within individual people for Kiarostami, most notably Badii, who desperately wanders Iran in his car searching for someone to cover the grave he has dug for himself. His suicidal quest isn’t explained, nor does the film gesture toward an assumption that it could be explicable. It doesn’t hold pretense of dangling a vision of Badii’s life for us, but nor is he an abstracted cipher devoid of energy or personality. Similarly, there’s little that feels symptomatic or prescriptive about the various characters he meets, who are saved from symbol status via their anxious humanity dripping out in seductive hints of larger lives suggested rather than intoned in garrulous, dictatorial strokes by a screenplay that prefers the long, hypnotic drawl over the carefully planned, digestible slice of exposition.
Jonathan Rosenbaum lovingly referred to it as a cinema of loss, where audiences presuppose something is missing or given up in the transition from expository, traditional narrative cinema to a cinema of minimum information and maximum feeling. Badii lacks a psychology, a “cause” for his actions, and because of this, our perceptual quest to understand him, and finally, to realize that fully understanding another person elides us as part of our essential human complication, is the core of the film’s vision of people as too complex to be pigeonholed by psychology or appended meaning. In minimalism – like Bresson, Dreyer, Godard, Akerman, and Antonioni to name five directors whose styles should nonetheless never be lumped together, or with Kiarostami for that matter – this director has discovered a sense of possibility and of the freely floating audience mind given light to drift around specifically because of how bereft the film in front of them initially seems. Without given meaning, we must search, and only through searching can we discover.
De Sica, too, is likely to be name-checked in understanding Taste of Cherry, but De Sica’s palpable community is a contrast in Taste of Cherry. Collectivity eventually emerges as a final exclamation point (in perhaps the most daring and sublime ending to any film in its decade) to a sentence of cinematic solitude and isolation, but the film’s overarching concern is the desperate quest for connection to a character in a world that seems to deny connection. The film’s relentlessly conversational dialogue is surrounded by and undercut with the simple elegance of Kiarostami’s reticence to filming any two-shots in front of the car, always sequestering the individual characters into their own worlds and frames to induce a loneliness that never leaves.
The roving camera filming the outside realms of Tehran, picturing life and light doses of chaos, disavow the ordered simplicity of life in the car (the most poignant comparison might by Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which relies heavily on similar stylistic contrast to elucidate different imaginative realms both within the car and between the car and the outside world). Even still, Kiarostami’s style is all his own, relying less on the pointed instability of a shaken camera than the quiet hum of a more open framing, where the fragmented frames of the characters in the car buckle under the sweeping vision of more universal, society-encompassing shots of the outside world. Kiarostami, for one, is less invested in the outsider realm of people – De Sica’s world – than the interaction of people and space (more like Tati, although comparing Kiarostami to Tati too seems woefully arbitrary considering the opposite status of their visions of people and space). Kiarostami’s camera hones in on the dust of Tehran and discovers something extraterrestrial about it. Call it something the characters miss in their more insular interests, perhaps avoiding or destroying the world in the process.
Still, there’s undeniable empathy in Kiarostami’s vision (so Antonioni isn’t the right mark either) of humans connecting with one another, however temporarily, through the simple desire to learn a little more about another person, a position that Kiarostami tacitly invokes for us when we are essentially positioned in the alternating perspectives of Badii and his passengers in the car. Our perceptions, our fallible glimpses of the other person in the car, become intertwined with the characters’ quest for meaning and connection. We learn as the characters learn. Kiarostami’s vision of life, in this way, is perceptual and durational rather than double-slaughtered and obvious; his conception of existence is temporal and liquid rather than static and predestined. People are in the process of making themselves through their interactions, rather than having been molded out of clay prior to the beginning of the film. Do not mistake this for an easy arc, however – Kiarostami’s film rejects the notion that prepackaged arcs can be appended to life. Instead, he recalibrates the notion of change and rising-falling action so that one’s self never occupies any one state at any one time. Volatility is siphoned from placidity.
Even the finale, an emancipatory vision of life beyond the narrative frame of the film, subverts and reorients expectations. A simple aesthetic shift, devastatingly inspiring in light of the aesthetic simplicity of the film preceding it, is all we need to remind us of the power of cinema as a mediator for life itself. Many have called the ending “detached” or “distancing” in the way it severs the reality of the film narrative from us by showing Kiarostami mid-filming. The conclusion’s real identity is a cosmic suggestion that the cinema encircles us all, a rapturous reminder that life is given meaning by art.