There is no filmmaker quite like Abbas Kiarostami, who, after being hailed as perhaps the most important director, captured a Palme d’Or in 1997 with Taste of Cherry. His minimalist style, uncertain place on the spectrum of fiction and documentary, and intense demands of his audience are almost countered by his focus on natural landscape and a philosophical probing of his characters. This combination makes him utterly unique and yet strangely accessible. In Taste of Cherry, the sensibilities form in a story of Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, who went on to play Amir’s father in the film adaptation of The Kite Runner), who is looking for someone to either bury (or save) him after he commits (attempts?) suicide. It is shot mostly from the inside of Mr. Badii’s car, with the occasional extra-wide shot where we see the car on the winding, mountainous roads while Mr. Badii or his passenger—and he has a few of them throughout the film—continue to talk.
Why would anyone help Badii? His car contains enough money to last around half a year, so the question is how willing the passengers are to compromise their values—they need money, but they certainly do not advocate suicide—in the name of material gain. These supporting characters are, at times, the most compelling part of the film, as their discussion about their job, family, and homes tell us about the preciousness of life and a desire to leave a mark in comparatively certain terms.
What is not asked is why Mr. Badii wants to die in the first place. A passenger asks, of course, but Mr. Badii gives the usual “you wouldn’t understand, you can’t feel my pain,” and that’s all that needs to be said about that. Ershadi plays Mr. Badii with a calm demeanor, and speaks in monotone, so he comes off somewhere between a blank slate and an intellectual, and it is our job, as Kiarostami tells us with his wide shots and long takes, to fill in that blank. We know that Mr. Badii served and met many of his best friends there, but whether he is still in contact with those friends, whether he has a job, a family, is unknown. What we project onto him, whether we are sympathetic and understanding or judge him as cowardly tells us more about us than about him.
The constant in the film is dialogue. Whether we are in the car looking at one character or the other (Kiarostami sat in the passenger seat during filming, so two people rarely appear in the car at the same time), in the car looking out, or far outside the car watching it along the road, there are usually people talking. If there is prolonged silence and a lingering wide shot, it’s your chance for reflection; Kiarostami demands your participation in his other films, this one is no different. His distancing strategy never feels tedious because it provides a remedy to the claustrophobia that being confined in a car so devoid of suspense creates, but it also feels like cheating a bit. Kiarostami’s script is not pessimistic enough to be nihilist, but it also lacks the bravery of allowing us emotional closeness. Our chance for reflection occasionally feels like a copout from a director too lazy to paint a full picture.
Even so, camera placement itself is enough to make us realize that something special is at work. The long shots of nature are often juxtaposed with the most serious conversations, highlighting life’s fragility and its rewards. Similarly, prolonged gazes at nature, filmed at an angle that keeps the top of the window in frame suggests that Mr. Baadi is looking or something to attain (especially in light of the final passenger’s monologue), but the window acts as a restrictor; a type of mental proximity prevents a visible achievement. The framing is fantastic, and its juxtaposition is moving but never even lets “sentimental” get on the radar.
The ending of Taste of Cherry is polarizing. You will either see a frustrating copout that leaves you ideologically confused, or you will see a director placing everyone on equal footing, validating your thoughts and encouraging you to think critically. Regardless of how you react, that Kiarostami require so much of the audience in the ending is a perfect fit, as the film was doing it the whole time. Still, character is a bit too thin to fully merit such ambiguity, and indeed, Taste of Cherry as a whole could be more insightful than it is. It’s a quietly bold experiment, and at its best, it’s brilliant, but the execution is a bit lackluster. Kiarostami would adjust the themes and give a more precise setting several years later with Ten, a similar film, and there would truly equate the audience and the filmmaker. Here, it is valiant, but when considering everything we see up to that point, the meta-textual message is a bit hypocritical. The cherry on top was left out in the sun for a bit too long, but it can’t ruin the cake.