Friday, January 6, 2012

Classic Throwback Review: Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Taste of Cherry, which tied for the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, is my introduction to Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, and it has piqued my interest in his filmmaking and prompted me to seek out more of his work. His most recent film, Certified Copy, was one of the most praised films of 2011, appearing on many Top 10 lists. Though I immediately warmed to his unique style, patient, deliberate pacing and quietly observing camera, it is clear that Kiarostami is not a universally appealing filmmaker, but an influential one easy to admire and respect.

Taste of Cherry is a minimalist humanist drama that feels very much like it is observing and documenting real people, crafting a simple story around an intriguing character in a unique situation. Beautifully lensed, and becoming more visually gorgeous as the light changes with the passing of the day, the film delves into a number of complex existential themes, while simultaneously unravelling the suppressed psyche of the protagonist and probing into Iranian culture, by revealing it’s rugged industrial expanses. Along the way, the vibrant life of the Iranian working class are examined, as well as meditations on life, death, religion and conflict (Afghanistan and Iran, Iran and Iraq). Taste of Cherry poses a number of questions for the audience, and despite the long periods of silence, lengthy shots of the protagonist simply driving around (cutting between shots from the interior of the vehicle and from an aerial perspective) and conversing with his companions during the day, the film is never disengaging, but in fact, oddly captivating.

Essentially, there isn’t much I can say about the story without giving too much away. Taste of Cherry follows a day in the life of Mr. Badii (a wonderful Homayoun Ershadi, who emotes so much by saying so little), as he drives around the dusty outskirts of Tehran – crossing paths with an assortment of interesting individuals and the Iranian working life, searching for someone to assist him with a job. In a pre-title sequence, we see him driving through a bustling industrial region asking random workers what their profession is, how much they make, and propositioning them with high paid work. It’s all a bit suspicious, but he seems to be caring and well meaning, if a little desperate and absent-minded - out-of-touch with life, and stripped of all obligations and motivations with the exception of this one agenda.

He is reluctant to tell any of the candidates that emerge, including a young, shy Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarist and an Azeri taxidermist, what the job entails, but offers a large sum of money that would aid each of their lives. The seminarist, for example, works as a labourer in the holidays to assist his savings. Throughout the film, we gradually learn more about what Badii proposes to do, and why he needs assistance. He faces refusals (the soldier flees, while the seminarist declines because of religious objections) but when he meets the taxidermist, he has an existential awakening – and Badii’s loss of acknowledgement to the pleasures of life, is rekindled. In a way, it’s a touching, life-affirming story, but at the same time, it’s something else. The conclusion is very odd and I’m not sure what to make of it yet. I think more time spent with the films of Kiarostami will assist in fully understanding his attitude to filmmaking, and how this ending relates to the prior 90 minutes, which are simply extraordinary.

We are thrown into Badii’s life and don’t really know very much about him, nor do we discover where his motivations stem from. One would imagine it is difficult to sympathise with him or relate. But we do. This has a lot to do with the marvellously written dialogue (or is it improvised?), the collection of unique characters, the fascinating use of close-up, and the fact that nearly every shot possesses this ethereal beauty - at times wonderfully utilising dialogue without actually watching the actors deliver their lines. We see plenty of that already, but it's beautiful to watch the car snaking it's way through the hilly landscape, as the taxidermist shares his poignant story. It is also interesting to note that each of the actors were filmed separately by Kiarostami himself, who adopted the driver or passenger seat when necessary. 

It’s hard to explain why I am eager to re-watch a film where a guy just drives around for 90 mins (it does sound boring - and Roger Ebert famously thought so), but you’ll just have to watch it for yourself and see why. The film is set mostly in a single vehicle, yet the scale of its themes, the emotions it brews and the impact it leaves, are enormous. It's an unforgettable and beautiful tale.

My Rating: ★★★★★ (A)


  1. Great review. I wasn't quite so enamoured by Taste of Cherry, but it is definitely very good.

    Have you seen Close-Up? It's the other really famous Kiarostami film, and it's incredible.

  2. Aside from a short segment by Kiarostami that I saw, this is the first full-length feature of his work that I've seen and I want to see more. I really thought this is a great film. Sorry Roger Ebert but you were wrong.

  3. @ Corey - This is the first Kiarostami film I have seen, but I want to see more. I'll probably start with Certified Copy (because I missed that last year) but I'll give Close Up a go. Thanks for stopping by and the recommendation Corey.

    @ Steven - I loved it. I was so moved - and just sat there with my mouth open. It was odd. Yeah, Ebert got it wrong. Not the first time I have said that this year.

  4. I've not seen any Kiarostami works either. Gah! So many great filmmakers to check out, so few hours in the day. Great review Andy!

  5. It is a mystically engaging film and one that's hard to talk about too much without spoiling. I was surprised by how emotionally involved I was by the end of the film and the concluding act of the film is beautiful.