“Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” ~ Jean Luc Godard
“Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” ~ Martin Scorsese
In distressing times, cinema can be supremely beneficial to our morale and well being. Most commonly it allows us to transport into fantastic new and alternate dimensions, but it can also aid in personal introspective examination by driving us to the heart of the unanswerable questions that weigh on our lives. It gives us comfort both superficially as well as spiritually, which is why storytellers have been concocting narratives on the origins and trials of human existence for about as long as art has existed. But few artists have been able to use cinema to examine such questions like the late Iranian artist and poet Abbas Kiarostami, who the world lost in 2016, and whose work both transported viewers and examined our very reality.
Today, thankfully his work lives on to be studied and appreciated and has been recently restored by Janus Films, which is why this month we will be presenting a four-part retrospective of his work with selections that capture his beautiful homeland with a distinctive emotional atmosphere and investigate the human spirit with protagonists that ponder the troubles and moral ambiguities of life itself.
A Quick Primer on the Early Life of Abbas Kiarostami
Kiarostami began his career making short films, and eventually features, for the Iranian Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. These films began a career that would study the preciousness of life and examine the beauty of nature as encroaching technological advancement and violence persists to confine us.
Born in Tehran, he lived, studied and worked in Iran through his country’s most tumultuous conflicts, including the 1979 revolution that provoked so many of his contemporaries to flee. When asked why he decided to stay in his home he responded, “When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree” Because of this, his films display a love and devotion for a nation that has too often been harmed by violence and conflict.
Taste of Cherry (1997) – Monday, March 9 at 7:30 PM
Our retrospective begins with the film that won Kiarostami the Palme d’Or as the Cannes Film Festival, the only Iranian film that has held the honor. The film follows a man as he drives around the outskirts of Tehran in search of someone who can help him with a certain, unknown task. At first, we can’t be sure what he is looking for, but it’s not long until we learn that he is planning to commit suicide and needs someone who will throw dirt on his body once he sees this plan through. The audience sits in the car with him for most of the film as he picks up passengers to make his pitch. However, he finds difficultly in convincing them as their faith and empathy prevent them from agreeing to such a demand.
This is a great introduction to Kiarostami’s work not only because it is a deeply emotional and captivating story, but it also uses re-occurring themes that you will see come up again and again throughout the retrospective, pushing unfamiliar audiences to dive-in headfirst. Here, the audience is placed with an emotionally strained protagonist that ponders and debates the meaning of existence with his passengers while Kiarostami manipulates the layers of reality which point out the complexities of life. First, he provides us the reality of the film as we see and learn about the character and his task at hand, but Kiarostami is also quick to allow the actor the chance to interact with daily life inside Tehran, thus injecting our own reality onto the screen. At the end of the film, Kiarostami goes as far as to coda the finale with actual documentary footage to bring the film in as close as he can to our own lives. He tells us not to be fooled by what we see on the screen when true beauty can be found in our own reality, while still adding validity to the cinematic experience and showing us that complex lessons can be learned in the balance of fiction and reality.
Certified Copy (2010) – Monday, March 16 at 7:30 PM
Once you’ve gotten a taste of who Kiarostami is as a filmmaker, this series takes a sharp left turn with his most divergent film that takes us out of Iran and onto the streets of Tuscany. The film stars Juliette Binoche as a French antique dealer that guides a visiting British writer (played by opera singer William Shimell) around the city, discussing the worth and merit of art when it is created through duplication.
Though stylistically and narratively distinct from most of his work, we still see him playfully experiment with “reality” to a point where it’s ultimately difficult to decide if you should trust the given narrative at all. Without spoiling a slight twist that happens at the midpoint, the world that Kiarostami builds is one that bizarrely unfolds and becomes humorously frustrating. To be vaguely short, while arguing about the merits of duplication, we begin to see Binoche and Shimell’s lives transform around the very discussion.
He boldly presents a narrative in such an absurd and strange manner, but ultimately shows us the delicateness of life and its possibilities to instantly change at any moment. And again, he’s here to show us the merits of a complex relationship art can have with reality, and how the two can meet and diverge from each other. The overall argument of duplication also becomes very intriguing, as it challenges a popular notion that art can only have merit if it is original, and thus, only relationships can be valid if they are born from reality.
Concurrently, as the film unfolds and the conversations continue, we’re given the treat of a private tour through the beautiful countryside and city-life of Tuscany, shot by the marvelous Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, well known for his work with Paolo Sorrentino on The Great Beauty, Youth, and This Must Be the Place. Juliette Binoche as well, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, shows some extreme talent as she effortlessly transitions between English, French, and Italian in each scene.
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) – Monday, March 23 at 7:30 PM
The Wind Will Carry Us takes the series back to Iran with the story of a group of journalists that arrive in a small village, disguising themselves as engineers, to capture the peoples’ collective mourning rituals as one of their elders slowly passes away. But once the crew arrives, they find themselves frustrated as it takes longer than anticipated for the elder to pass. So without many options available, they must blend in and acculturate with the local life in the village while they wait.
The story of a hardened and cynical city dweller that learns to appreciate the finer and simpler ways of life is nothing new, but Kiarostami is not necessarily interested in discussing this transformation as much as he is in examining morality and life after death. The film is centered on Behzad, and though he is part of a crew, he is the only member that we ever actually ever see. As he wanders the village, he often holds conversations over a cellphone or communicates with villagers that exist as disembodied voices. His life exists in many ways as if he is in limbo.
In his stay, among the many relationships that he establishes is one with a young boy (who we do see) with questions about the trials and ultimate destiny for those that are good vs. those that are evil. For Behzad, though these questions seem easy, throughout the film he is given tasks and trials of his own that reflect his moral being; some that he passes, and some that he doesn’t. All the while, he is whisked through the countryside to see the true beauty that exists in nature. On this journey, we see Behzad’s appreciation for and all living things grow.
As a filmmaker and quasi-journalist, it’s not difficult to see how Kiarostami is using this film for his own personal reflection, and we as an audience are meant to be taking on this personal journey with him. This film also reflects his deep admiration for the Iranian landscape, with its most famous and strikingly beautiful shot being one that involves Behzad on the back of a motorcycle moving past open fields of wheat and green. There is no other director that has had the ability to shoot landscapes like Kiarostami, who made every part of the frame count, especially considering he often used a limited 1:66 aspect ratio.
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) – Monday, March 30 at 7:30 PM
And finally our series concludes with Kiarostami’s first major breakthrough work which he completed while working for the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The story focuses on a young boy, Ahmed, that returns home from school to find that he accidently packed away his classmate’s notebook. Unfortunately, this notebook includes homework that if left uncompleted, could ultimately make the difference between his classmate’s success and expulsion. So its this small, inciting incident that begins Ahmed’s journey as a small, unlikely hero that must scour a nearby village in search of his classmate and return the notebook.
His journey takes him through back streets and into the homes of friendly neighbors, while avoiding obstacles of uncaring adults who can’t seem to understand the reason for his journey. As we saw in The Wind Will Carry Us, Ahmed’s journey is one of constant trial for the benefit of the good and the film gives us our most optimistic ending in the series. And it also leaves us at the beginning of what has been retrospectively called The Koker Trilogy, as it all take place within the village of Koker. This is meant to be a cliffhanger in our series that will either allow us to continue at a later point in time, or perhaps inspire you to seek out these later two beautiful films on your own.
In addition to these beautiful films, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and Where is the Friend’s Home? will include post-film discussions with Cameron Cross, Assistant Professor of Iranian Studies at U-M, Linda Saab, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State, and Iranian playwright Naghmeh Samini. Hope to see you all there!
Visit https://www.michtheater.org/kiarostami/ to get tickets!