Taste of Cherry (1997); Dir. Abbas Kiarostami: The Taboo of Suicide

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Suicide is (and always has been) a cross-cultural taboo. No religion is indifferent to it. I think the ancient Egyptians might have been a culture that thought it was a valid way to go, if you wanted to escape this life and move on into the next (I think I learned that in my humanities class a billion years ago) … but in general, suicide is a big fat no-no. Everywhere. I’m not talking about political suicide – ie: kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. That’s something different, although, in its own way, it totally upends the natural order and sends those facing it into total chaos and fear. Who would do that?? Who would make that choice?? Etc. If you choose to commit suicide, then you basically don’t get into heaven.

Due to the openness of our society, we can debate these things. No one is indifferent, but the word itself can be spoken and acknowledged. This is not the case in Iran – and so Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, in a which a suicidal man drives around a giant construction site – trying to find a laborer who would be willing to bury him after he committed suicide – is a brave and almost political film. It’s weird – perhaps Iranians would not agree with this, but I am an outsider: It seems that most films, even domestic dramas, are political, when seen in the light of the theocratic society they live in. The role of women, the strict morality rules, all of that top-down mullah stuff … which affects the lives of everyday people to such an extraordinary degree … That’s REALLY what “the personal is political” means. So again, I’m an outsider and I think I might read a lot more into these things than might be there … but I’m not quite convinced of that. Taste of Cherry was a massive international hit, and won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1997. It was a HUGE deal. Kiarostami was allowed to attend the premiere at Cannes, which was also a huge deal – again, with the political implications in even things like movie premieres … He was given a standing ovation by the very tough crowd there, who won’t hesitate to boo you off the stage if they don’t like what you’ve done (just ask Vincent Gallo!!). Taste of Cherry is an enormous feather in the cap of the Iranian film industry.

I read some of the reviews at the time and wondered if those folks had seen the same film I had. I’m a fan of Iranian film, as should be obvious by now – but Taste of Cherry left me a little bit cold. And for me, just the fact that Kiarostami was addressing a hugely taboo subject in his culture, is not enough for me to give the film a pass. I think the context is interesting, don’t get me wrong, and I will watch pretty much anything that Iran generates – but films must also be judged on their own merits. Does it work as a story? I think about a film like Fireworks Wednesday (my review here) – and how much it works, just being itself – good story, good characters – Or a simple story like Children of Heaven – which is one of my favorite movies of all time … and it just works as a story, first and foremost. The details of the story – the sibling relationship, the lower-class family’s financial worries, the way the kids hide their plan from their parents, how clever they are in trying to get away with it … just every bit works. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s suspenseful, it’s poignant, and it ends with a running race through Tehran that is so exciting that the audience I saw it with at The Angelika (with Kate) burst into cheers periodically – as our hero surged ahead, straining to come in second. He is the best runner in his age group – but in order for his plan to work – he has to come in second. How on earth would you make that happen?? God, I love that movie. It’s one of the best “family films” I’ve ever seen.

Taste of Cherry reminds me of reading a stilted translation of Hafiz or Rumi, Iran’s major poets. The poems come off as almost treacly. Trite. I have pretty good translations of both poets, and I can kind of get why they are national heroes … but it wasn’t until I went to a Persian poetry reading at Bowery Poetry Club a couple years ago – and heard the folks there recite Hafiz and Rumi in Farsi (by heart, mind you) – that I could actually hear the poetry. And I didn’t understand a word they were saying!! But it sounds gorgeous – in a way that it just canNOT when translated into English.

So I’m wondering if outsiders projected onto Taste of Cherry something that was not actually there. That’s my experience of it, anyway – and it looks like Roger Ebert felt the same way. He writes:

Defenders of the film, and there are many, speak of Kiarostami’s willingness to accept silence, passivity, a slow pace, deliberation, inactivity. Viewers who have short attention spans will grow restless, we learn, but if we allow ourselves to accept Kiarostami’s time sense, if we open ourselves to the existential dilemma of the main character, then we will sense the film’s greatness.

But will we? I have abundant patience with long, slow films, if they engage me. I fondly recall “Taiga,” the eight-hour documentary about the yurt-dwelling nomads of Outer Mongolia. I understand intellectually what Kiarostami is doing. I am not impatiently asking for action or incident. What I do feel, however, is that Kiarostami’s style here is an affectation; the subject matter does not make it necessary, and is not benefited by it.

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Mr. Badii, the lead, played by Homayoun Ershadi, drives around, peering out his window at the various laborers he sees – quizzing them on their financial status, do they want to make some extra money?

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There’s something creepy about how this is played, and I do think that part of it is effective. Until we know what he wants, he either seems like a sex offender or a serial killer. He comes off as totally nosy. Some of the guys he talks to say to him, “Buzz off.” Others get sucked in, because they’re curious about what the job would be, and they need the money. He finally reveals his plan – to a young Kurdish soldier he picks up. They’re parked on a mountain of earth in the industrial wastelands of Tehran – and Mr. Badii gets out of the car and points to a grave he has already dug on the side of a hill. He wants the soldier to drop him off there, and come back at 6 the next morning. He wants the soldier to then call out his name twice. “If I answer, help me out of the hole. If I don’t answer, shovel earth on top of me.” He has sleeping pills, which he will take. His plan is to die in the earth. The grave is already dug – he just needs the burial. Naturally, he runs into some resistance when he tells this plan. The Kurdish soldier (played by a non-actor – wonderful) balks. “I can’t shovel earth onto someone,” he says. Mr. Badii assures him that he will be dead – he won’t be burying him alive! No, no, no … the Kurdish soldier flees, running down the mountain of earth, away from Mr. Badii and his wack-job proposal. I don’t blame him.

The film is made up of 4 or 5 of these proposals – to different folks … and in between Mr. Badii circles through the dirt, driving, staring out the window, looking for someone who will agree. The scenery is monotonous – not just because of the monochromatic desert color-scheme – but also because it’s the same spot, seen over and over and over again. I thought the film itself was shot beautifully, with long views of Mr. Badii’s car, driving along with piles of dirt towering up over him. There are flocks of crows which take flight in front of his car, cawing indignantly. Mr. Badii stares up at them.

The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed and trite. There are no buildings where Mr. Badii drives. Just mountains of earth and a dirt road cut into the side of it. Mr. Badii is surrounded by earth. The scenery looks like one giant grave. There’s even one shot where he stands on the side of the road, watching a huge tractor dump earth into a giant hole – and his shadow is seen against the other side of the hill, with the shadow of the falling dirt projected beside him. A gorgeous shot, but so obvious I thought – Come ON.

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But my main issue with the film was in the performance of the lead. He is mainly seen in profile, as he drives along – and I just didn’t feel the underlying despair at all. We are never given a reason for why he is suicidal. We don’t know anything about Mr. Badii, and I’m not saying I needed it spelled out for me (“My wife died. Therefore I am suicidal”) – but give me something. And if you’re not going to tell me why, then the actor playing the part had better make me believe that he has a damn good reason. That he means business. I am thinking of Sissy Spacek’s haunting performance in ‘Night Mother – where she announces, in the first 5 minutes of the film, “I’m going to kill myself at the end of the night, Mother … and I’d really like to enjoy our last night together.” ???!!! Anne Bancroft, as the mother, of course goes apeshit. The thing that is chilling about that script is that the daughter does not give a reason. She’s epileptic, if I remember correctly, she is divorced, she can’t hold down a job, she lives with her mother – she has social problems. You know, she’s had a shit hand dealt to her – but nothing outrageously out of the ordinary. She is not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s not even really that unhappy. As a matter of fact, having made the decision to commit suicide cheers her up, she feels a lightness, a sense of purpose. She is happy with her choice. Her mother begs her – why? why? why? What can we do to change it? What are you unhappy about? Let’s make it better! The daughter is basically like, “Nothing needs to be changed. I’m just opting out of life, that’s all.” She is calm, happy, and ready. She’s done. She’s done with life. So there’s an example of how you don’t need to have an A to B set-up, you don’t need to bash me over the head with motivation or Freudian impulses, or childhood trauma. But give me SOMEthing. Mr. Badii seems pretty indifferent. His main concern is to get someone to bury him – and yes, I totally got his growing desperation to find someone to take on that task. That was quite real. But since we are given no background information about him – nothing – we don’t know if he has a wife, kids, what he does for a living … NOTHING. And the actor isn’t revealing a deep chord of either despair or intense joy (like: I’ve made my decision to die, and I feel good about it) – He is not looking for advice, he doesn’t want a lecture … His performance left me cold. I wanted to tap into his experience, I wanted to have a more complex response to him … but I just didn’t. He’s not a whiner, he doesn’t over-act, he doesn’t gnash his teeth or weep and wail. What I saw was a man driving around in circles, looking out his window, occasionally talking to people on the side of the road. That’s it. If the actor had been actually playing something … something that I got, anyway … it might have been a different film for me. But he didn’t appear to be playing anything. It’s my opinion that he’s gay and can’t deal with it. I’m not just making this up out of thin air, there are clues along the way – and I’ve got to believe that Kiarostami knew what he was doing in that regard. When he sets off to go kill himself, we see him in his apartment – through the window. He’s in silhouette. He walks around, washing his face, putting his coat on, ready to go. There is no wife, no children – at least not that we see. He lives alone. Why? What’s going on? Then, there is the opening sequence with the Kurdish solider – before we know what Mr. Badii wants – and there is definitely an impression given that he has picked up the soldier and will pay him for sex. He is vague about his intentions, purposefully so – and Kiarostami allows the ambiguity to just sit in the air for a while … until we learn more. The soldier tries to get more information out of Mr. Badii – what kind of job is it, what does he want him to do – and Mr. Badii replies, “It’s your hands I want. Not your tongue.” If this is an accidental bit of subtext, then boy, that’s some accident. Obviously he’s saying, “I don’t need a lecture, I don’t want you to talk … I just want you to pick up a spade and shovel some earth…” Perhaps it’s a matter of faulty or inaccurate translation, but I honestly don’t think so. I honestly believe that that impression is given for a reason. Mr. Badii never divulges what his problem is (and of course, in Iran, being gay is even more unspeakable than being suicidal) … but I’m going with the gay theory, and I’m sticking to it.

He eventually picks up a guy who works as a taxidermist at the National Museum. Kiarostami is known for working with non-professional actors and children – and many of the people picked up by Mr. Badii show Taste of Cherry as their only credit. They did not try to act. Sometimes there is awkwardness – like they speak over each other, and have to repeat themselves – the way it is in real conversations – but stuff like that is usually edited out. Here it is not. It actually didn’t bother me. I liked it. The passengers he picks up (the Kurdish soldier, the seminary student from Afghanistan, and the Persian taxidermist) are, on the whole, played in a lovely, understated, truthful way. They don’t seem like amateur actors. They seem like real people.

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So the taxidermist is not an actor, but he has a giant monologue as Mr. Badii drives him through the mountains of earth. There is a trite-ness to the sentiments expressed here, but the down-to-earth way in which he plays it – makes the monologue worth the price of admission.

Taxidermist: I’ll tell you something that happened to me. It was just after I got married. We had all kinds of troubles. I was so fed up with it that I decided to end it all. One morning, before dawn, I put a rope in my car. My mind was made up. I wanted to kill myself. I set off for Mianeh. This was in 1960. I reached the mulberry tree plantations. I stopped there. It was still dark. I threw the rope over a tree but it didn’t catch hold. I tried once, twice, but to no avail. So then I climbed the tree and tied the rope on tight. Then I felt something soft under my hand. Mulberries. Deliciously sweet mulberries. I ate one. It was succulent, then a second and third. Suddenly I noticed that the sun was rising over the mountaintop. What sun, what scenery, what greenery! All of a sudden I heard children going off to school. They stopped to look at me. They asked me to shake the tree. The mulberries fell and they ate. I felt happy. Then I gathered some mulberries to take them home. My wife was still sleeping. When she woke up, she ate mulberries as well. And she enjoyed them too. I had left to kill myself and I came home with mulberries. A mulberry saved my life. A mulberry saved my life.
Mr. Badii: You ate mulberries, so did your wife, and everything was fine.
Taxidermist: No, it wasn’t like that. But I changed. Afterwards, it was better, but I had, in fact, changed my mind. I felt better. Every man on earth has problems in his life. That’s the way it is. There are so many people on earth. There isn’t one family without problems. I don’t know your problem – otherwise I could explain better. When you go to see a doctor, you tell him where it hurts. [Long pause.] Excuse me, you’re not Turkish, are you? [Mr. Badii shakes head] Here’s a joke. Don’t feel offended. A Turk goes to see a doctor. He tells him: “When I touch my body with my finger, it hurts. When I touch my head, it hurts, my legs, it hurts, my belly, my hand, it hurts.” The doctor examines him and then tells him: “You’re body’s fine, but your finger’s broken!” My dear man, your mind is ill, but there’s nothing wrong with you. Change your outlook. I had left home to kill myself but a mulberry changed me, an ordinary, unimportant mulberry.

Near the end of the film, we suddenly see the film crew filming earlier sections of the movie – the soldiers running by on drills, stuff like that. We see the camera guys setting up, it is as though we are watching a video monitor, we see Kiarostami standing by his camera man, we see the lead actor hand a cigarette to Kiarostami … Nothing in the film has set us up for this kind of commenting-on-the-fact-that-we-are-making-a-film style. Nothing. It’s fine if you comment on the fact that you’re making a film – it’s very much in vogue!! – but this? It doesn’t fit, and seems to serve no purpose. What we are being told is: It’s only a movie. What you just saw was a movie. To say that this approach does not work in this particular film is a vast understatement. To my mind, it’s a cop-out and a huge error. The film collapses in on itself immediately, when we are pulled out of it. Kiarostami should have stuck to his guns, and just ended the damn thing, on its own merits. I was left hanging in the wind, by that ending, and it doesn’t serve the film at all (regardless of what interpretation or spin you put on it).

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The last shot of the film is self-explanatory, I suppose, but it’s baffling to me why Kiarostami made that choice. Much of Taste of Cherry has to do with distance – so I get that part of it. We get long long vistas, of Mr. Badii standing on a dusty dirty hill, staring into the smoggy panorama of Tehran. We see FAR in this film. Even when we’re in deep close-up with Mr. Badii driving, out of his window you can see vistas and dirt-mountains … Nothing is claustrophobic or urban here. There’s lots of building going on, but there are cliff-faces and you can see across ravines – and the people look like miniature figures, the cars like Matchbox cars. Sometimes we just get a long long shot of Mr. Badii’s car circling the dirt cliffs – and we hear the conversation going on in the car from that remove. Much is seen via long long distances.

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So there’s obviously a style being used here, an approach – which doesn’t serve the film, in my opinion, although it is quite beautiful to look at (screenshots below. Just gorgeous). And so to suddenly get a meta-moment when we are reminded that this is a film we are watching, and we see the director in sunglasses, and hear the walkie-talkies buzzing … it’s jarring. It doesn’t work. At all.

The more distant we get from Mr. Badii, the more we realize the hollow performance at the center of Taste of Cherry.

If you’re interested in Iranian cinema, and you don’t know much about it, then you really have to see Taste of Cherry – it has its place in the history books, just because of the brou-haha surrounding its tour of the festivals – the fact that it was so honored (and that Tarantino is such a fan-boy about Kiarostami) is a big deal, a groundbreaking moment in the late 90s which catapulted Iranian film into the world limelight. And rightly so. Kiarostami is one of the major players in Iran, and his work needs to be dealt with on its own terms – because he’s that good. I love Ten – and it has a gimmick to it as well (much of Kiarostami’s films are gimmicks, experiments) – but in that case, it works. The gimmick is set up from the start, and it ends up serving the film as a whole, instead of detracting. So to me, Taste of Cherry falls short, for Kiarostami – even though it is the film that he is most known for. I applaud any addressing of a taboo subject. I applaud any courageous confrontation with censorship. Taste of Cherry has all of that. But, in the end, it did not have the courage of its convictions. It reassures us: It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.

I know that. I know it’s only a movie. Pointing it out to me adds nothing.

And I just wish I cared more!


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3 Responses to Taste of Cherry (1997); Dir. Abbas Kiarostami: The Taboo of Suicide

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