A spectrum of heterogeneous voices and layers of reality rhyme with one another in Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, a seemingly meta-textual work without any of the narrative gamesmanship or self-conscious striving for iconographic importance that characterizes most films in the post-modern idiom. Kiarostami loves cinema too much and is too taken aback by the empathetic, observational powers of his medium to abstract it to a narrative game or an analytic formal exercise; his films remains low to the ground, in the trenches of being, alive to the anecdotal energies that frizz within the rural Muslim community Through the Olive Trees sets its eyes on.
Throughout the film, Kiarostami does not mend the gaps between reality and fiction so much as massage them into new, equally revealing configurations. Mohamad Ali Kershavarz plays a fictitious director, an analogue for Kiarostami, in the midst of filming Kiarostami’s actual previous film And Life Goes On. This fictional film is about a rural Iranian community coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster, and he films using the non-professional actors of the community. Through the Olive Trees is essentially a semi-fictionalized account of the filming. Hossein Rezai, one of the non-professional actors, plays a fictitious version of himself within this film-within-a-film, but he struggles to star in the film while attempting, on-set and when the camera isn’t filming, to woo the girl in his village, Tahereh Landani, who happens to be playing his fictitious fiancé. The characters struggle to fulfill the roles foisted upon them, the characters they must play, even though the roles correspond to their genuine life experiences.
That sounds like a mouthful of high school post-modernism right there, but Through the Olive Trees never consecrates itself like that. Kiarostami’s film is thoroughly inductive cinema, pulsing with particles of identity that accumulate over time as a portrait of not only this town but of people uncertain in their social roles, existentially unmoored by the fungible dynamics of personhood in a world where art and life so thoroughly intersect in increasingly intimate and unclear ways. It’s obviously deconstructive, but it’s also aggressively entertaining not as an intellectualized or academic exercise but a love story played out in flubs, foibles, and miscommunications not only between people but between aspects of one self. Through the Olive Trees jeopardizes any hermetic dichotomies between the various selves of these characters/people/performers, a menage a trois that is itself a much more porous and unclarifiable melting pot. But, despite all that thematic work, it spreads over you easily and without friction, like melted butter on bread.
The love story, of course, is not only between Hossein and Tahereh but between cinema and life, between the film Kiarostami wants and the rebellious scrapings of life he receives. Through the Olive Trees thrums with the knowledge, dating as far back as Man With a Movie Camera, that cinema and the camera exist within the DNA of life rather than at an existential remove. Film not as a depiction of life but as dialectic with life. Sure, Through the Olive Trees drifts between filming and reality, but it also envisions film and reality in polyvocal ways. Characters speak lines from their own life when they are meant to say fictionalized, scripted lines that represent occurrences in their own life. Reshoots merge repetition and alterity, calling attention to minute changes in the minutiae of the “film-within-a-film” line readings as down-time informs their performances. In turn, Kiarostami also plays with the nature and identity of space and situation, cutting between perspectives such that some shots of the same scene suggest genuine conversations and others imply filmed versions of those conversations without always drawing clear distinctions between the two.
Through the Olive Trees also clarifies Kiarostami’s directorial ethos through complication, since the fictitious director attempts to counsel the male actor in a way that parallels what he wants for his screenplay, only to forage for new interpretations and images when he increasingly finds life getting in the way of his film. This is not to redress or reprimand cinema for its artifice but to follow a third, dialectic path that hybridizes artifice and reality. In addition to providing a panoramic yet intimate view of this community and a vision of communalistic life as reprieve from disaster, Through the Olive Trees is not a self-critical attack on itself but an exhilarating, positive statement to filming as a collective working-through of crisis. It critiques the notional realism of the verite movement, and also acknowledges that realism, in a world replete with personal performances and mental fictions, necessitates not an overlooking of the camera but a hyper-cognizance and investigation of the camera.
If Olive Trees notices the fictional director’s fragile grasp over his actors and his notion of story, this notionally informal but deeply felt film also exposes these cracks in the harmony between film and reality as a way for film and reality not only to operate in mutualistic symbiosis but to better each other. Art and life, in this vision, are mutually fulfilling and mutually disturbing, and if that isn’t enough, the act of fulfilling and disturbing are themselves mutual; only by imagining the lapses in film and ways film bleeds into reality, the ways people work through their problems through art, can art truly become a participant in the constructive fabric of life, rather than simply an alienated observer or a fly-on-the-wall. Only through the camera disturbing reality, pressing into and altering reality, testing reality, can it truly expose the reality behind the surface. The line between truth and fiction is not only thinned, as in many films, but is no longer a line; fiction begets truth.
The film’s final, receding image, of the two lovers conversing at their most intimate and the camera increasingly withheld and unable to consider their intimations and affairs, is no confessional compromise or failure that implies that film cannot truly connect with its subjects. Kiarostami’s film acknowledges that film, not in spite of but because of its very gaps in knowledge, will continue to reach where it cannot, to jostle its own sense self and our perspective of the world, and to boldly step beyond itself in a display of formal and thematic adventurousness even when failure is immanent.
For Kiarostami, this failure is his greatest success, a monument not to cinema’s ability to surpass its limits but to incorporate those limits into the very fabric of its being, into its personal identity, its amalgamation of self, for film to self-reflexively incorporate its own interrogation of reality and investigate its self. Kiarostami’s tracking eye is tethered to an open-minded, roving worldview, concluding with an (in)famous final image that considers how all truths worth glimpsing aren’t always up-close-and-personal, that secrets still exist and private spaces can be created even in ostensibly public fields. Through the Olive Trees offers a transfixing palette of naturalistic scenarios, but it diffuses through them an adroit analysis of the slipperiness of that naturalism, a slipperiness that emits rays of uncertainty and thematic tendrils that persist in many and sometimes contradictory directions. Through the Olive Trees is a poem of permeability, every moment evacuated of its ideological clarity and replaced with something more gloriously debatable.