A couple of years ago I submitted a short piece on Abbas Kiarostami's 'A Taste of Cherry' to the Telluride FF for consideration to be part of the festival's Student Symposium. The topic of the essay was to name one film you would take with you to the future, considering its significance to cinema and its ability to create social impact. At the time of writing, I almost felt that I was romanticising and over-indulging the art of cinema a little bit, so never thought to share it. Going back over it again now after the sad news of Kiarostami's passing, it seems apt to post this as a short tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema.
'A Taste of Cherry' is a fable-like story told in minimalist style; a man, Mr. Badii drives around the outskirts of Tehran, searching and trying to convince someone to bury him after his planned suicide. He asks several people but speaks at length with three men in particular – a young Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary student and a taxidermist – each with a different reaction and reasoning as to why Mr.Badii shouldn’t go ahead with his plan.
As the film unfolds in real time the viewer is put into a meditative trance with Mr Badii’s car traversing the barren landscape. I must admit - this is not a film that I would typically choose to watch over and over again for entertainment. But even though the subject matter is dark and the pace glacially slow, Kiarostami’s film was neither boring nor forgettable. It has the power to ingrain itself in your memory long after it’s finished. The film lends itself more to a celebration of life and living rather than a fatalistic or critical perspective of the debate of suicide.
Probably one of the most memorable scenes was when the taxidermist tries to convince Mr Badii that life was worth appreciating. He recalled how the taste of mulberries and the simple beauties of life had deterred him from taking his own life in the past. It was a long monologue in which he went on to tell Mr Badii a joke about a man who visited his doctor claiming that every part of his body that he touched with his finger was hurting. The doctor explained that his body was in fact fine; it was only that his finger was broken; we only have to look at something with a different perspective and the problems we thought we had may be less severe than we first thought. This story has embedded itself into my philosophy in life. And it would no doubt have a similar effect to others who have seen it.
In essence, the plot of this film could have been told in 15 minutes or less. However, if the story were condensed without the long conversations and musings (such as the one mentioned above) and presented concisely as is customary of western cinema, the film loses all its contemplative and poetic qualities.
When thought about in depth the film is a beautiful example of one of the most subtly profound pieces of cinema that exists. Like much of Iranian cinema, strict censorship in Iran forces filmmakers to find alternative ways of addressing taboo and difficult topics which question and challenge the theocracy. The result is often something that is more poetic and more poignant than any idea that would have had the freedom of simply being expressed aloud.
'A Taste of Cherry' was initially banned from screening in Iran but eventually made it to Cannes and even won the Palm d’Or in 1997. It is a beacon of hope that says that even when restricted and oppressed, creativity can still thrive and free thinkers and artists will always find a way for expression.
Mr Badii was adamant that he did not want to leave the world without someone to bury him, despite knowing that after death, a lifeless body probably wouldn’t know the difference. Nevertheless he wanted to be assured that he’d be remembered, or at least acknowledged that he lived and made a mark on the world. This is Kiarostami reflecting our universal fear of mortality and transience as human beings, but more personally, the importance of art and cinema to him; creating something that has a timeless, lasting effect on others and leaving his own mark on the world.