Great filmmakers have been known to be notoriously parsimonious in praising their contemporaries, tending to get even more uptight when it comes to giving due credit and moral support to their successors. Akira Kurosawa was no different, but with one notable exception. After the passing of Satyajit Ray in 1992, Kurosawa made an uncharacteristically generous statement, which was not only a tribute to what was dead and gone, but also a celebration of what was still to come in world cinema. “When Satyajit Ray passed on,” Kurosawa said, “I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Now that Abbas Kiarostami is no more — he died at age 76 earlier this week in Paris — that place is left definitively vacant. To emphasise the value of Kiarostami’s films would be to state the obvious and the oft-repeated. His seat of honour among the canonical greats was guaranteed years ago —the crux point perhaps was the 1997 screening of his film Taste of Cherry (to which we shall presently return) at the Cannes Film Festival, where it became the first Iranian film to win the Palme d’Or. No less an authority on the craft of cinema than Jean-Luc Godard was, by his own admission, influenced by Kiarostami’s work, even if later, driven by a sort of Oedipal rage, he went on to reject most of it.
In Godard’s view, cinematic history is bookended with D.W. Griffith on one side and Kiarostami on the other. “Cinema Cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami,” Godard once famously declared. This might sound like an overstatement, but the point being made here is easy to miss. With Kiarostami, cinema entered a newer, less innocent and more self-conscious age. Stylistically, this was the age of documentary realism, a time for filmmakers to reassess and reaffirm some of the old principles of cinéma vérité. But more than that, Kiarostami’s films never lost sight of the distinction between lived reality and a work of imagination; between truth — vérité — and the visual manipulation of truth, which is how cinema can roughly be defined.
Authenticity of setting and of character — creating an illusion of reality — was particularly dear to Kiarostami. (He liked to work with non-professional actors, mostly locals recruited from whereabouts the film was being shot.) But equally important to him was the shattering of that illusion for the benefit of his viewers. The final scene of Taste of Cherry perfectly summarises Kiarostami’s attitudes in this regard.
The film is shot for the most part from within a moving car. (The car; the view from the windshield; the road ahead are all recurring motifs in his work.) Its setting is a landfill site on the outskirts of Tehran and its subject — suicide — is what many would consider the perfect vehicle to peddle cheap sentimentality. Countless novels and movies have exploited, trivialised and misrepresented the reality of suicide, using it as an easy plot device to provide an emotive twist to the tale. Then along comes Kiarostami with his profound, respectful, unsentimental yet moving and, yes, darkly humourous take on suicide.
Kiarostami’s films never lost sight of the distinction between lived reality and a work of imagination; between truth — vérité — and the visual manipulation of truth, which is how cinema can roughly be defined.
In Taste of Cherry, the protagonist, Mr Badii, wants to end his life but for no apparent reasons — at least nothing is revealed to any of the other characters or indeed to the audience. We follow him as he drives around in his old Range Rover at a landfill site, looking for someone who could help bury his remains after, of course, he has done the deed by swallowing a handful of sleeping pills.
Suicide is considered a serious crime under Islamic law, and the film was predictably at the centre of a censorship storm in Iran at the time it was made. Yet it was somehow shown across the world, including at Cannes, provoking extreme responses — either adulation or intense dislike — among critics. Roger Ebert, for instance, found the experience of watching it “excruciatingly boring” (Ebert, though, tended at times to absolutely stop making sense in his film reviews, while some of his criticism remains stellar and is completely free of such affective fallacy).
Towards the end of the film, we see Badii settling down inside the “hole” of his choosing. We know that Badii has taken the pills, and that the paid accomplice is supposed to arrive at the spot early in the morning to keep his end of the bargain and to give Badii a respectful burial. But first he has to ensure that Badii is indeed dead; if there are any signs of life left, according to the terms of agreement, Badii is to be rescued and revived. “Throw a couple of stones on me,” Baddii had said to him, “What if I am just asleep?”
On the screen, during Taste of Cherry’s last minutes, we see Badii staring at the full moon lighting up the night sky; he subsequently closes his eyes. The screen then goes dark, until more time lapses and noises in the background beckon the arrival of a new day. The next shot is markedly incoherent: it’s taken with a handheld camera, focusing first on a marching troop of army cadets somewhere out in the distance, and then on another man equipped with what is unmistakably a professional film camera. Next, we see another member of the film crew, the sound man perhaps with a boom mic. Badii (played by actor Homayon Ershadi) later walks into the frame, smoking a cigarette. The viewer is left confounded: what the hell is happening? Finally, the master himself appears: Kiarostami, shows up in the frame, wearing dark glasses as ever. So the magic spell is broken. All the expectations of the viewer — to find out whether Badii somehow survived — are crushed. We are transported back form reel life to real life with a jolting reminder that what we just saw was all makebelieve: it was a just a film. And the film has now ended. It’s important to consider this last bit not as some behind-the-scenes footage, but as an integral part of the movie. And once we do that we begin to understand Kiarostami’s aesthetic principles a little better.
Yet for all their unsentimentality and postmodern cunning, Kiarostami’s films all remain beautifully poetic. There’s lyrical poetry in them, with references to Rumi and Omar Khayyam and religious scripture scattered everywhere. But more than that, his films are visually poetic. Ray once wrote that cinema is “first and foremost a pictorial medium”. Kiarostami understood and lived by that dictum. He had a great eye for visual composition, much like Ray. And he pursued landscape and abstract photography with the same seriousness he reserved for filmmaking. As he once said, “Photography is the mother of cinema.”
There are long, extended shots in some of Ray’s films that I don’t mind hitting the pause button to stare at. To still the moving image and study the shots like I would a photograph. Kiarostami is another filmmaker with whom the same exercise often proves to be equally rewarding. This perhaps constitutes one of the many links between the visions, the styles of the two filmmakers. And Kurosawa may have had similar thoughts at the back of his mind when he made his point about the younger genius replacing the elder one. Can anyone replace Abbas Kiarostami now? The question is not even worth asking.