Film Review #154: Taste of Cherry
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari
Years ago one of my sisters sent me a postcard from a Boston museum of a John Singer Sargent painting of a simple, square, sun-washed stucco house, I think in Capri, across whose clean, rectangular lines fell the shadow of a tree, sinuous and lacey. I’ve never seen that painting again and I can no longer locate the postcard. But I remember staring at the painting and the sudden blossoming pleasure I had in seeing it was as much a painting of the tree as the house.
It’s no surprise, really, that Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami – also a landscape photographer of considerable renown who leans toward stark, nearly abstract groupings of trees against fields of snow – should come up with a similar image late in Taste of Cherry, his 1997 tale of a lonely, modern city-dweller who spends his last day alive seeking, with singular tunnel vision, someone to cover his grave. By the time Kiarostami trains his camera on Mr. Badii’s living room window, we’ve spent the day with this man and we know his plan.
Beginning in downtown Tehran at a street-corner labor pool whose beseeching swarms of supplicants he passes by, the finicky Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives on, out of the city’s center to the outskirts. There he offers money to a construction foreman at a deserted site who’s been talking in a phone booth that's incongruously planted in the middle of a muddy field. This man, apparently with his own money problems, mistakes Badii’s offer for a sexual advance and angrily turns him away. It’s a huge sum Badii offers – 200,000 tomans, nearly six months wages for the average Iranian worker.
Mr. Badii drives on, picks up a young soldier (Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari) who’s walked all night from his Kurdish village to get back to his post on time for his duty. Badii fondly remembers his own military service, but he makes the slender boy increasingly nervous. Dropping his not-quite-jelled military reserve, the boy sprints down the hill in panic once he sees the open grave. Badii stops a while with a construction site guard, an Afghani refugee who offers to make him tea in his rickety shack on stilts at the foot of towering slope from which a bull-dozer’s constant din and dust rains down. The guard’s fellow refugee, a seminarian, turns Badii down and fails to dissuade him. But even here, in this construction site as vast and desolate as any on-screen since those of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang in his 1994 Vive L’Amour, simple hospitality abides. And when Badii’s wheel goes off the edge of the road, muddy laborers cheerfully haul him back.
At last, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), an old Turk who’s been out on foot hunting quail for his taxidermy students at the national natural history museum – a place of ornate, scrolled gates and deep, serene lawns, the only site of man-made order and beauty in this city – agrees to the deal, after relating his own close call with suicide decades ago and the sick child whose care Badii’s money will secure.
It’s Bagheri – after all, he’s also found some famously nervous birds in a most unlikely spot too – who supplies the film’s title, the culmination of his inventory of nature’s bounty. “The world isn’t the way you see it,” he asserts. “Do you want to refuse all that? Do you want to give up the taste of cherries?”
Now, after dark, Mr. Badii paces in that living room, straightens up some items, picks up some papers from a desk and then puts them away, perhaps in a drawer, before he shuts off the light and leaves the building to descend his front steps and drive in his tan American Range Rover through a black night to that fresh hillside grave overlooking a glittering Tehran.
This living room scene is a layered, triply remarkable image. First, Kiarostami shoots it through sheer curtains, so we watch Mr. Badii in silhouette. Like many aspects of this film – the long shots, the vast, raw construction sites on the city’s expanding outskirts where much of the story occurs, or the fact that Badii is almost never in the same frame with the person he’s talking with – this heightens his isolation. But there’s more than that. It’s hard not to think later – this is a film that stays with you, unfolding in the next days – of the image of the ancient cave with its fire-thrown, flickering shadows – illusions that we mistake for what’s real. Perhaps no matter how modern our architecture becomes, we are still in that cave.
Second, there’s that old saying about the eyes being the windows to the soul. That strikes you suddenly near the end of this scene, when Mr. Badii turns the lights off and his living room window goes dark and blank – just as he intends to do in short order. It’s a moment startling in finality – he means to do this – and unexpectedly, because now you see how much you’ve hoped he’ll change his mind, sad.
Finally, throughout this scene, across the front of Mr. Badii’s house falls the graceful shadow of a young tree trunk and branches, swaying faintly in a rising wind that signals rain. Like the golden sunset that Mr. Badii watched earlier – shimmering above a really deeply ugly cluster of squat, new cement boxes – this tree illuminates both the effortlessness of the natural world and how she casts her shadow across all the progress that we make and do.
Taste of Cherry was the first Iranian film to take top honors at Cannes, and even then critics argued about its ending, a brilliant extension of the thread that all is not as it seems. That ending – with its hillside lushly green, its cherry trees in bloom, its young soldiers lounging, its film crew chatting and Louis Armstrong’s “Saint James Infirmary Blues” exulting – so moved Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that he insisted defiantly that for once he would too write about the ending.
Martin Hogue, who teaches architecture, screens this film on Monday, April 7th at the Warehouse Auditorium downtown at 7:00 PM, part of his course, The City in Film, an extended exploration of how the city has functioned in movies as a character of shifting identities rather than a mere backdrop - appropriate work, it seems to me, for a school of architecture that has moved itself off its lofty hilltop and into the city's urban core, and some of whose students are still grumbling about that inconvenience. He’s wouldn’t mind if you dropped in to watch either.
This review appeared in the 3/27/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.