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Taste this "cherry" of a film by Abbas Kiarostami, writes Sharad Raj


YEAR: 1997


“Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Kiarostami,” said Jean Luc Goddard of Abbas Kiarostami. The tentative mystic assured himself a permanent place in the firmament of grace. Such was the gravitas of one of cinema’s most somber and silent talent. Kiarostami refused to leave Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and it was to this deeply Iranian spirit that Kiarostami provided a cinematic body that was universal. Kiarostami’s is the cinema of meditation, where the artist aspires for asceticism. Kiarostami is its foremost apostle.

Taste of Cherry, is Abbas Kiarostami’s much acclaimed film that won the Palme d’ Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. He is often referred to as the Vittorio D Sica and Satyajit Ray of Iran. It is Kiarostami’s documentary style that blurs the line between fact and fiction and his rigorous minimalism that impressed film lovers and critics the world over. It is his frugal approach towards the poetics of cinema that makes him a formidable master. Kiarostami practices a certain kind of minimalism that strips the image of any superfluous details. Modernism in painting was the art of using minimum strokes for maximum artistic pleasure. Taste of Cherry is no different as a modernist work in cinema. Picasso escalated modernism to a different height with Cubism. Kiarostami, like Picasso takes minimalism to severely austere heights as he adopts the “bare minimum” approach.

Mr Badii, a middle-aged man, drives through Tehran looking for someone for a job in exchange of huge sum of money. During his drive with prospective candidates, Badii reveals that he plans to kill himself and has already dug the grave. He needs someone to throw earth on his body, after his death. His first candidate is a young, shy Kurdishsoldier, who refuses to do the job and flees from Badii's car. His second candidate is an Afghan seminarist, who also declines because he has religious objections to suicide. The third is an Azeri taxidermist. He is willing to help Badii because he needs the money for his sick child, but tries to talk him out of it; he reveals that he too wanted to commit suicide a long time ago but chose to live when he tasted mulberries. The taxidermist tells Badii to taste the cherries instead. He however promises to throw earth on Badii if he finds him dead in the morning. That night, Badii lies in his grave while a thunderstorm begins. After a long blackout, the film ends with camcorder footage of Kiarostami and the film crew filming Taste of Cherry.

Theme of life and death has been Kiarostami’s dominant preoccupation. Taste of Cherry also explores the fragility of life and rhetorically emphasizes on how precious it is. The cinema of Kiarostami is an anathema to even the more radical lovers of the art. Taste of Cherry abandons cause and effect completely. We never get to know what is the cause for a rich and healthy, middle-aged man to contemplate suicide. Kiarostami also doesn’t clarify whether Badii actually dies or not in the end. The audience is free to speculate. In fact, Kiarostami enhances the discourse on the possibilities of his open-ended ending by showing video footage of the actor and himself shooting for the film in the end. For Kiarostami, there is always another world outside the world on the screen.

Kiarostami’s magic lies in caressing the details that lie between cause and effect. While his camera captures these, Kiarostami’s elliptical lapses create gaps between scenes. It is these gaps that become points of entry for the audiences. The long, brooding takes of Kiarostami distances the audience from the action and the ellipses makes them active participants in storytelling. Audience is expected to fill in these gaps and create their own subjective narratives. Hence Kiarostami offers many films in one. The time between scenes that Kiarostami obliterates belongs to the audience.

A defining feature of Kiarostami’s cinema is the car. His characters often travel and Badii is no different. Badii’s travel through the hilly contours outside Tehran becomes a metaphor for the inner, spiritual journey. His characters have no particular destination to reach and that is precisely why they travel, for the outer becomes a trigger for the inner.

Another display of Kiarostami’s auteur ship is his refusal to use the reverse shot in dialogue scenes. Kiarostami almost never shows the person who is being spoken to, but always creates a sense of off screen space through dialogue and sound. By limiting the space on scree, Kiarostami expands the space of his art. For the space outside the physical space represented on screen, becomes the metaphysical space as some critics argue. Taste of Cherry is Kiarostami’s most complex expression of existential dilemma’s that concern Badii as much as they concern Abbas Kiarostami.

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