“If you look at the four seasons, each season brings fruit. In summer, there’s fruit, in autumn, too. Winter brings different fruit and spring, too. No mother can fill her fridge with such a variety of fruit for her children. No mother can do as much for her children as God does for His creatures.
You want to refuse all that?
You want to give it all up?
You want to give up the taste of cherries?”
(Mr Bagheri in Taste of Cherry)
Anything I can possibly write praising the late, great poet of cinema Abbas Kiarostami will be an epic disappointment. One, because I lack the finesse to write well, and secondly because the art that this grand filmmaker and artistic polymath has left us behind is beyond the limitations of words, it’s beauty is simply inexpressible.
Although, I had only seen ‘Taste of Cherry’ (quite a few years ago) and ‘Close-up’ (last February), prior to his untimely passing, I was so moved by just these two films that I felt compelled to say something – but I just didn’t know how or what.
Since then, I have watched two more masterpieces: ‘Life and Nothing More’ and ‘Through the Olive Trees’ (both a few weeks ago), and I figure that at the very least I should perhaps share how his films have made me feel and what they have taught me.
Having not been a recreational reader of books (despite being a hoarder of hundreds of books) for much of my life up till relatively recently, I have to confess – with some pride – that most of what I have acquired that I consider to be of some personal value regarding the profound questions of existence, have emerged predominantly from four activities: observation, personal life experiences, contemplation and film.
Amongst the hundreds of films I have seen, there is a special place for those few that Abbas Kiarostami created with so much love and has now left behind for humanity. Undoubtedly, they shine like a light that illuminates the beauty, fragility and compassion in the world around me and within us all.
Kiarostami: The Cineaste
I vividly remember my first attempt at watching Taste of Cherry. It didn’t fare so well. I had dozed off around twenty minutes into the film and had woken up feeling ashamed at the inability of my corrupted mind to remained engaged with a film that been called a work of art and lauded by so many critics.
I did however, feel slight less embarrassed when I heard the following wisdom from Kiarostami much later on:
“I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”
I take his ‘sleeping-during-a-film’ theory as evidence of not only his own film being an undisputable work of art, but also apply it to countless other great films that have sent me to sleep as well.
Eventually – albeit after a much more dedicated attempt – I did manage to finish it.
And just like Kiarostami (and Asghar Farhadi) had said, moments of the film have danced within my mind, and repeated viewings have illuminated moments of beauty missed the first time around, unearthed undiscovered layers as well as fermenting deep philosophical questions about the nature of our existence.
Kiarostami: The Philosopher of Human Experience
It was through ‘Taste of Cherry’ that I became accustomed with the idea of how individual experiences could shape personal moralities, truths and decisions in life. The grey, subjective nature of truths was a breath of fresh air to the rigid, cold dichotomy of truth that I had been presented with (and always struggled) with.
On the surface this film appears to be simply about a suicidal man searching for an accomplice to help him along his way. But interestingly, when the ‘film police’ of Iran questioned him about this ‘unacceptable’ theme, Kiarostami explained that this film was more about the the idea of free will and choice to live or take life, that is granted to man by an evidently merciful and kind God. This interpretation of God itself is not only beautiful and compassionate, but a challenge to the version of a cruel and sadistic God that is peddled by so many.
Most people will recall that beautiful moment when a passenger recounts how close he himself came to giving up on life, narrating how a simple taste of the mulberries (from which the film derives its title) manages to dissuade him from taking his life. This is the passenger’s attempt to divert the mind of the suicidal driver and protagonist away from death and towards life.
Unlike the didactic nature of conventional western cinema that preaches exposition for its (supposedly) vacuous and passive audience, Abbas Kiarostami never reveals to us why this clearly troubled man is hell bent on taking his life.
This is not simply a minimalist device to conceal information. Yes, Kiarostami respects and provides space for the imagination and active participation of his audience, but most importantly it is in harmony with his personal vision and within the context of the story.
Why should the passenger tell anyone his reasons for wanting to leave the world?
It was only after the film that my naïve mind contemplated and maybe understood…
It was futile for one man to share his reasons, for taking his own life with any of us. It was his experience of pain that was the most important, and as man can never truly experience the pain of another, how could they possibly judge one another?
Does this imply that one should not moralise upon another man’s desire for death, or for life?
These are some of the profound questions of life that I thought about long after the film had ended and still think about. I realised that I had discovered that Abbas Kiarostami was not only a man of experience and wisdom, but also a philosopher who was compassionate to the complexities and struggles of the human condition.
And just when I thought it could not get any better, I discovered Close-Up.