The quiet bravura of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry has received the highest praise, both here and abroad. At Cannes, in 1997, the movie shared the Palme d’Or with The Ice Storm, and a number of American critics have hailed it as a masterpiece. A masterpiece! I agree that Taste of Cherry is an interesting and unusual movie, but still, I wonder – that is, I struggle like an infidel against evil thoughts. First, an acknowledgment: Kiarostami, the most celebrated director of the Iranian cinema, is a man both delicate in his perceptions and generous in his sentiments; he also wields enormous formal control over his material. Yet I can’t help thinking that the comparisons to De Sica and Satyajit Ray and other masters betray a degree of critical desperation. Is this movie rich enough – does it show the many-sided vitality of the great movies of the past – to warrant the extravagant praise? Or are critics, depressed by the obvious aesthetic poverty of the world cinema, arguing themselves into it, placing their bets on Kiarostami because they have no other cards to play? That could be a risky game. When an audience is primed to encounter a royal personage in breastplate and plumes, it can turn vindictive when it discovers instead an emperor wearing no clothes.
In the hills outside Tehran, the handsome, fiftyish Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives about in a Range Rover looking for someone to help him commit suicide. Why does he do this? We search for clues. Ershadi has beautiful dark eyes, a powerful forehead, and a cleft chin. His face is a stunning mix of sensuality and severity – it is the face of a prince, a lawgiver, a great artist. Surely Mr. Badii is a formidable man, healthy and affluent – not at all the type to kill himself. So it is a puzzle. Mr. Badii picks up a variety of strangers and demands the same favor of each: He is willing to pay good money if any of them will return the next morning to a prearranged spot – a hole by the side of the road – and either pull him out if he is still alive or shovel dirt on his dead body. Badii, it becomes clear, is going to take sleeping pills and await the results; he will make a wager with death and leave someone else to clean up the mess. He alludes briefly to unhappiness, but he never quite tells us why he wants to kill himself, or why he cannot do the act cleanly, decisively, and in solitude. After a while, this baffling fellow seems less a credible human being than an obvious symbol: Here is a man in negation, a man denying the value of life. Most of his passengers, by contrast, offer plain and solid reasons why he should live. Kiarostami has set up his story as a philosophical debate.
At first, the movie’s odd look, its strange repetitions and slow, steady rhythms, fascinate the Western moviegoer. Are we not bored with the straight-ahead style of our commercial movies? Mr. Badii drives and drives, wandering ceaselessly around the yellow-brown hills, which seem partly an industrial waste – we see pipes piled up, an abandoned car – and partly a hilly desert in which dirt is moved, in a parody of purposeful human activity, from one excavation site to another. Nothing seems actually built in this place (it could be a vast prison compound in which the prisoners are merely kept busy); and nature barely exists – a colorless tree or bush appears now and then, and at dusk, a few birds can be heard chirping in the gloom. Physically, the movie is handsome in an intentionally monotonous style. We see the car, we see the hills … is Kiarostami teasing us?
Boredom knocks at the door, at first quietly, then insistently. Inside the Range Rover, Kiarostami cuts back and forth between single shots of Badii and his passengers. These simple exchanges (first one man speaks, then the other) are varied, now and then, by views of the dirt road through the windows of the car, or by shots from above of the Range Rover making its way around a curve or passing through some hollow in the terrain. What have we got here? A road movie going in circles? So it would seem, and we get the point: Life is not a breakout into freedom, not a momentous journey from one state of being to another. Life is a constant revisiting of the familiar. If life can be defended as a value, it must be defended for itself, as mere existence, in all its monotony.
The strangers Badii meets have obviously been selected for their representative quality. There is a rather simple fellow, a worker who extracts plastic bags from the mounds of dirt and sells them – an absurd occupation. There is a very shy young soldier; there is also a man guarding an empty outpost, and his friend, a seminarian who recites (rather tonelessly) the standard Islamic injunctions against suicide. Kiarostami likes to use nonactors, and all these men speak flatly, without emphasis. They are not required to dramatize their beliefs. It is enough, for Kiarostami, that they have a job, a function, a station in life. Like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer in the great poem “Resolution and Independence,” they are rooted to their spot, their little piece of the enormous dirt pile.
Taste of Cherry is a parable in realistic form. The repetitions and simplicities feel like something out of a folktale. Wisdom, one fears, is in the air. Mr Badii picks up still another passenger, an older man, a taxidermist, and this fellow, unlike the others, is powerfully articulate. He tells Badii a story, recites the lyrics of a song – his words are touching but also banal, for he offers an affirmation of life that never gets tested or dramatized, an affirmation merely stated, as a conclusion beyond proof. Kiarostami almost lets the old man win the debate, but doesn’t quite; Badii’s powerful gloom is impressive, too. The argument goes back and forth, but still, by the time we get to the end, we may feel that not much has really happened in Taste of Cherry, not much has been shown. The extreme severity of Kiarostami’s formal game cuts things off. And what’s at stake when a director doesn’t put much life on the screen? Neither despair nor joy can be tested in a vacuum. The old man speaks of the sensual pleasures of life, but sensual pleasure is precisely what is missing from Taste of Cherry. This is a movie of great interest – an original work – but it lacks the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of movie art.