[Originally published, with minor differences, in Seattle Weekly in 1999]
There are moments while watching a film by Abbas Kiarostami when I feel cinema being reinvented in front of my eyes. It’s a feeling that sneaks up through the surface modesty his features. On the surface Kiarostami appears to be working in a style inspired by films such as The Bicycle Thief and Rome, Open City, the shot-on-the-streets approach of Italian neo-realism, working non-actors and real life events into the fictions of their films. This documentary-style directness and simplicity isn’t surprising given his background of almost two decades making non-fiction shorts and features, but it’s really only a starting point for his cinema. Kiarostami’s richly layered style and structure belie the simplicity and immediacy of his films’ quiet surfaces to explore increasingly complex relationships between actor and character, story and the storyteller, presentation and audience. This style culminates in the power, beauty and dignity of his 1997 masterpiece A Taste of Cherry. You can see the development of the artist through his “Koker Trilogy,” three films pulled together not by character and story but place and theme. His development comes into sharp relief as he questions the very naturalistic roots of his first film.
Where Is The Friend’s Home (1987) is Kiarostami’s first and most conventional fictional feature, the tale of Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), a schoolboy who discovers he’s accidentally taken home his pal’s notebook and travels to a nearby village (against the express orders of his mother) to return it. Impulsive, willful, stubborn, and shy, his face tightens in anxiety as he’s confronted, berated, and ignored by adults on his mission of honor. In an early scene, when the schoolteacher rips up his friend’s homework “to teach him a lesson” and sends the boy into tears, Ahmed looks off in pained discomfort, his teddy bear eyes searching for some neutral place to fix. On one level Kiarostami paints a society rooted in authoritarian demands, but on another he reminds how us kids get lost in the grown-up world of business and responsibility.
Like his subsequent films, Where Is The Friend’s Home is acted by locally cast non-professionals. The acting is not really realistic, but rather akin to watching real people “play” themselves in a documentary, so aware of the camera that they perform to it. This marriage of actor and part creates characters that doesn’t correspond to cinematic standards of “realism” yet emerge as completely genuine. Toward the end of the film, as night falls and Ahmed is still searching for his friend’s home in an unfamiliar town, increasingly anxious and edgy, an old man offers to show him the way. As they walk through the town the lonely old carpenter shows off his legacy of doors and windows, which set off the darkness like ornaments as the light from the houses throw the color of stained glass windows and the designs of ornate grills into relief on the alley walls. It’s a marvelous contrast: the impatience of youth hurrying the shuffling pace of age, the beauty of craftsmanship disappearing in the face of modernity.
Life and Nothing More (1992) (the title was changed by its distributor to the less accurate translation And Life Goes On… to avoid confusion with a similarly titled French film) charts the efforts of a director (Ferhad Khermanend, playing a fictionalized but unnamed Kiarostami) and his young son to return to Koker, the setting of Where Is The Friend’s Home, in the wake of the devastating 1990 earthquake. Kiarostami imagines his own journey as a fictional drama set against the real life legacy of the disaster, the camera simply watching out the car window for much of the film, taking in the changing landscape, the ruins of mud buildings and small houses, and the streams of homeless people hauling food and equipment to makeshift shelters. Ostensibly Life and Nothing More is about the search for the two boys who starred in the earlier film but it turns into a kind of fictional documentary about the strength of the human spirit in the face of disaster filtered through a self-reflexive prism. It’s a film that denies even the most rudimentary of dramatic arcs: Nothing happens, and yet life erupts all around.
That self awareness becomes even more complex in Through the Olive Trees (1995), a fictional drama about the making of Life and Nothing More. In the opening shot a bearded man addresses the camera: “I’m Mohamed Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director. The other actors were hired on location.” Before the scene is over the actor transforms into his character Jastarian and proceeds to cast his picture. It’s a marvelous glimpse into the working methods of Kiarostami (if in fact we can believe the accuracy of his recreation), but that becomes merely one of the many layers of “reality” in this film. Khermanend, who played the director in Life and Nothing More, returns to play the part in Jastarian’s film (that makes two fictional Kiarostamis onscreen!), but his story becomes secondary to a lovesick actor playing the husband of a young woman he loves and has been forbidden to marry.
Abbas Kiarostami is generally acknowledged as the leading light of Iranian cinema, but his films have not enjoyed the popular success of some of his contemporaries. Partly that’s due to his style, which draws out scenes to explore seemingly inconsequential details in a fidelity to real time and space: when a character walks from one end of town to another we’re there for the entire journey. His best films conclude with simple, silent open-ended scenes, to my mind some of the most sublime moments in modern cinema. He denies almost all conventions of western cinema, leaving his films elusive to many audience that find dull and uninvolving. But he also challenges audiences with an approach that combines grace, complexity, and pure, unconditional humanism. “We can never get close to the truth except through lying,” maintains Kiarostami, and in his multi-faceted layering of reality and fiction he comes closer than any director in revealing the truth of the human soul.