28 August, 2009

Movie Review: Taste of Cherry (1997)

Throughout the winding, unpaved roads of the dusty, colorless outskirts of Tehran, a dissatisfied man (Homayoun Ershadi) drives a Land Rover. He circles construction sites and decrepit areas, idling beside young men and scrutinizing them with fear and disappointment. He is a greasy and sad-looking man, middle aged, relatively wealthy but past the point of caring.

He overhears one solitary man talking about financial troubles on a payphone, and he zeroes in on him, offering a quick, well-paying job that the young man angrily refuses. Our dissatisfied driver is persistent, but the young man threatens to punch him in the face.

The dissatisfied man continues his slow drive, over tan hills of dry earth, past abandoned cars, through the raw materials of construction. The camera follows passively. There's no music--neither in the car nor in the film--and it soon becomes a chore to continue reminding oneself of the world's unceasing natural beauty.

Our protagonist approaches another man--a simple-minded looking young man wearing a UCLA sweatshirt he found in a trash heap. This boy collects plastic bags off the sides of roads and out of garbage cans, recycling them at a plastic factory that pays by the pound. Our protagonist offers him some unusual compliments ("that color suits you") while questioning him, but eventually he drives off. Perhaps this candidate is too dim-witted.

Finally the driver gets someone into his Land Rover, a young Kurdistani enlisted man--freckle-faced, timid, trod upon. The man dominates the conversation, taking the hitchhiker places he doesn't want to go--both in the conversation, where he brings up money, family, and enlistment, and literally, as he drives him up the hills and out into the desolation to take him to his "special job." The Kurd is uncomfortable; not only is required to be at the barracks in less than an hour, but he also dislikes the suggestion of prostitution and murder. He's a poor, young, scrawny minority, but he doesn't want to be taken advantage of. When the man sadly scolds him for behaving as though they're not friends but merely strangers--after having only known each other for a couple minutes--the boy begins plotting an escape.

After much vague hesitation, we reach the site of the job. On the side of the road, in the shadow of an abandoned hotel, beside a lonely tree, is a small, rectangular hole, and the man--Mr. Badii--plans to climb inside of it tonight, take a bottle full of sleeping pills, and sleep forever. For the equivalent payment of six months' wage, Mr. Badii needs someone to check on him at dawn and either help him to his feet if he's still alive or bury him with twenty spadefuls of earth if he is not.

It's not as illicit a task as contract killing or male prostitution, but suicide is still expressly forbidden by Moslem doctrine, and as soon as the boy is able, he flees down the hill and to safety, leaving the depressed man alone.

Mr. Badii hunts for other recruits. A lonely nightwatchman declines because he is forbidden from leaving his nearby post, and though the friendly recluse offers to make some tea and share his dinner and some conversation, Mr. Badii journeys on in his quest for someone to bury him. He finds an Afghan seminary student, a bright-eyed young man who attempts to lecture him on Koranic law while lifting his spirits, but Mr. Badii is particularly averse to the sermon. He's already given up on traditional religion, and if he needed an expert's opinion, he wouldn't go to a student anyway. "I need your hands, not your words."

He wanders into the construction site, where tractors are heaving stones and tossing around heavy piles of dusty earth. The nightwatchman has already commented upon the tedium of the monotone, dusty landscape, but Mr. Badii disagrees. Everything comes from the earth, and all good things return to it. There is nothing more beautiful than earth, which perhaps makes his proposed method of suicide the most transcendent act he can think of doing, the most artistic expression he's capable of. He stares until the ghastly swirls of dust, the great heaving of creation hypnotizes him, and a worried construction worker finally has to shake him from his trance and ask him to leave.

Mr. Badii finds someone to help him: an old, Turkish museum taxidermist who needs the money to save his child's life. The Turk is insistent that Mr. Badii will still be awake in the morning, and to prove his point he gently offers the suicidal man the encouragement to continue enjoying the unceasing joys of earthly life, to continue marveling at the colors of the sunset, the glow of the moon, the laughter of children, and the taste of cherries. And to prove he knows what he's talking about, he references his own failed suicide attempt so many decades ago, the only words that seem not to fall upon Mr. Badii's deaf ears.

The kindly Turkish man's speech isn't particularly mind-shattering or breathtaking, but what's most inspiring about his presence is something he causes to happen incidentally. As Mr. Badii drives the man to work, the man asks him to take a left turn instead of following the normal path. "I don't know that road," Mr. Badii objects. "But I do," the man explains. "It's longer and out of the way, but it's more beautiful." And so, with the wiser man navigating, the duo travels away from the desolate sandscapes that have eroded the first hour of the film and into more colorful areas with trees in bloom and fresh grass, populated areas of Tehran where children are playing and couples are honeymooning.

Though the Turkish man's speech may not necessarily save Mr. Badii's life, it does cause him to pause before pursuing his desperate act. He admires at least one more sunset. He considers the possibility that maybe he wants to fail.

Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 film طعم گيلاس (Taste of Cherry) is not for everyone. Much of it is intentionally lifeless and ugly, as dreary and empty as Mr. Badii's state of mind. We learn little about Mr. Badii other than that his happiest days were as a young man in the army and that he has a son. We can make implications about homosexuality or his relationship with foreigners (all the men he approaches are not typical Iranians, and he seems to dwell on this fact--maybe he feels as alienated as they?), but there's no evidence to support any claim, and at one point he explains that it would be useless to know his troubles anyway, that maybe someone could sympathize or "understand" but that they could never feel the same pain that he feels. To be suicidal is a unique desperation; problems outgrow themselves. What begins as a need to reach out to someone or to meet some certain goal or scrounge up some certain amount of money becomes bigger than that problem; what difference would it really make anyway, even if that person were reached or that goal was met or that money was found? The world would continue quite the same as always. Eventually the possibility of a solution becomes unhelpful--the whole landscape of life becomes tainted with nihilism, and the mere existence of such problems becomes proof that the world is an imperfect place, that no problems nor solutions nor anything else really matters in the grand scheme, since the grand scheme doesn't care whether you live or die.

So to know the source of Mr. Badii's ailments would only cheapen our perception of him. Say his son had died. We could understand how grief-stricken he would be. We could empathize with losses we've endured. We would offer five dozen uplifting remarks about the cycle of life and the afterlife and all of that and expect that finally he would realize that suicide wasn't a solution. And if he disagreed, then we would be forced to judge him for weakness--how have we and so many others been able to endure the deaths in our families, yet he can't? Such an easily describable cause would be the etiology but not the illness; the depression driving the suicide would be far greater than mere grief. It would be akin to the realization that if all people are destined to die, than why bother living? What happens when the taste of cherries stops being thrilling? When the beauty of a sunset can no longer redeem us?

Kiarostami refuses to cheapen Mr. Badii with melodrama, but in so doing creates a cold character that we have problems relating to. He also, by doing so, weakens the Turkish man's argument at the end. What saved the Turkish man's life may not save everyone. We can never know, and the film ends with an ambiguous fade to black.

The final shots before the end credits show us the filmmakers behind the scenes, reminding us that for all its realism we've been watching a film. I'm not sure what purpose this serves other than to free Kiarostami from commitments. Suicide is a complex and mysterious subject, as evident by the fact that most of us spend our lives diligently trying to hold onto them. What gives some of us the reason to keep living--religion, familial responsibilities, earthly pleasure--may not work for everyone, and for some all of the usual arguments may be completely pointless. There may never be a catch-all philosophical cure for desperation. Kiarostami merely tells his story, treating his characters with dignity, allowing silences to dominate, and presenting a world that is both ugly and yet--because it is the world--beautiful. Kiarostami doesn't have answers to give; he seeks merely to remind us that this is a problem we're still trying to figure out.

Taste of Cherry won at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, and it is currently #643 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list. It's an interesting film and maybe even an important one, but not necessarily a great one and certainly not one for everybody.

Taste of Cherry (1997)
d/w: Abbas Kiarostami
(Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri)
TSPDT?: #643


Anonymous said...

This movie stayed with me for a long time. They very slow drives up hills, then down hills, unaccompanied by music, was like the ebb and flow of a tide, or the earth breathing.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Abbas Kiarostami Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

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