[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.