50 years, 50 films: Taste of Cherry (1997)
As our journey through the last half century continues, we encounter a high point for the new Iranian cinema
One never quite knows where the next wave of great cinema is coming from. In the middle of the last century, works by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa caused western critics to take belated notice of Japan. A surge by Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the mid-1970s drew more attention towards German cinema than had been generated in nearly 50 years. Who reckoned on the boom in Romanian cinema that we have been enjoying since the start of the century?
The most unexpected national cinematic renaissance of all, however, came, surely, from Iran in the early 1990s. Suddenly, such directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf were making noise at festivals throughout the world. The movement did not, presumably, altogether surprise Iranians or foreigners who had been paying attention. After all, Iran had its own new wave in the 1960s. But many assumed that, following the Iranian revolution, such innovation had been shut down.
As often happens in such societies, artists learned to express themselves obliquely. Many of the new generation began, for instance, by making deceptively simple films for and about children. Abbas Kiarostami, the most famous of the newer wave film-makers, took just such a route to highbrow celebrity. Then odd pictures such as Close-Up (1990) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) began nudging him towards modern-great status. The final seal of approval for Kiarostami (and modern Iranian cinema) came when Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997.
The phrase “deceptively simple” is one that appears often in writings on Kiarostami. The films hang around uncomplicated folk tales, elliptical romances and chance encounters. Yet Taste of Honey is positively Beckettian in its uncomplicated mise en scène. A suicidal man drives around a dusty part of the world asking strangers to bury his body after he has done away with himself. A Kurdish soldier obfuscates, ponders and then eventually runs away. A religious man expresses spiritual objections. Then he meets a fellow who, because his child is sick, agrees to help the hero for money. But a memory of his own suicidal tendencies begins sewing doubts. Besides, the man notes, who would willingly give up the chance to taste mulberries?
A description of any Kiarostami film promises more and less than the director delivers. The title alone of Taste of Cherry suggests a film rich with sensuality and poetry. None of his works are quite like that. What one gets, instead, is an austere approach to character and a rigorous refusal to sentimentalise. There are moments of transcendence in Taste of Cherry — particularly in the magnificent final shots — but the director is more concerned with teasing out arguments in dusty fashion. For these reasons quite a few critics find his works a little standoffish. They do not walk up and hug you. Nor, like, say, late Godard, do they actively push you away. They sit open to interpretation and deconstruction.
On a more trivial note, it is worth noting Abbas’s peculiar taste for having people chat together in cars. He doesn’t make road movies (quite often the drivers move in circles or sit in traffic). Nor does he allow jivey chatter such as that in (perish the thought) Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. But in Taste of Cherry, 10 and the recent Like Someone in Love he does demonstrate how those small moving spaces can encourage the viewer to focus his or her attention. Such effort is greatly repaid in Taste of Cherry.
For 1997, we also considered LA Confidential, Happy Together, Princess Mononoke, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, The Butcher Boy, The Ice Storm, Boogie Nights and Funny Games. What do you know? It was another fine year. We, of course, paid no attention to the useless Titanic. For the complete series click here.