The great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has said in an interview that “I immediately stop in front of a subject that invites me to contemplate it.” He was referring to his work as a still photographer (which, as it happens, is currently being exhibited at the Andrea Rosen Gallery), but the same approach is evident in his films, and none more so than his newest, The Wind Will Carry Us. The terrain he offers up to us has a rough serenity; the ridged, rolling hills are monumental yet evanescent in their remoteness. Kiarostami is no mere picture-postcard portraitist. For him, the changeableness of landscapes, the way light and shadow play across them and colors deepen or pale, is a spiritual value. The invitation to contemplation that he talks about is really an invitation to bring our way of seeing into harmony with nature. The human drama in his new film is charged with the drama of the encompassing universe. It’s all part of the same continuum.
As a film director, Kiarostami places himself among his audience; his imagery seems to open up its revelations to him at the same time as it unfolds for us. Most filmmakers do not invite us to collaborate in the visual experience; their vision is presented to us as a kind of proclamation, with all the inherent ambiguity in the imagery shaved away. Kiarostami, whose approach to nature must partly derive from Muslim culture (although it also seems pantheist), leaves the meanings open and various. The rich, slow deliberativeness of his style is in the tradition of directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Satyajit Ray, who also found great resonance in the communion between man and nature. With those directors, one often felt that a film of theirs consisting entirely of rivers or cloud formations or just empty rooms would still convey more of the eloquence of life’s passage than an ordinary director’s acted-out drama. So it is with Kiarostami. The introduction of people into his supernal tableaux does not alter his vision so much as it completes it.
In The Wind Will Carry Us, a producer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani), accompanied by a camera crew (whose faces are never shown), arrives in the remote mountain village of Siah Dareh in Iranian Kurdistan to record the impending ritual funeral ceremony of an ancient woman he has been told is near death. The villagers believe these men to be engineers intent on uncovering buried treasure from a local cemetery. With his jeans, unbuttoned shirt and sunglasses, and ever-present cell phone, the producer – no name for him is given – is a figure of some amusement in the valley. Whenever a call beeps, he charges in his Land Rover to higher ground in order to get proper reception; as the days stretch on and the old woman inexplicably improves, his crew threatens to mutiny. The producer doesn’t have time for the villagers at first, except as potential co-conspirators. He befriends a young schoolboy, Farzad, in order to get the inside scoop on the old woman’s health. He regards most of the locals as quaint artifacts of a vanished culture.
The community, however, is far from vanished, and it slowly elicits from the producer a vivid sympathy. Through poetry recitations he tries to draw out a young uneducated girl milking a cow in a cave; he tells her that “writing poetry has nothing to do with diplomas,” and he means it. But Kiarostami isn’t going for anything as simple as a back-to-nature idyll here. The villagers aren’t some hazy, salt-of-the-earth conceit; they’re a joking and savvy bunch, and their imbroglios, such as a scene involving a complaining waitress and her sullen male clients, are folkloric comedy sketches. (The contrast between the majesty of the natural surroundings and these petty flare-ups is a constant source of humor.) When the producer organizes a rescue operation for a local man who has been buried alive, the old doctor who arrives on his rickety, buzzy motorbike is not one to speak reverently of religion and the purported glories of the afterlife. “Prefer the present to these fine promises” is his choice advice.
Kiarostami preserves his outsider’s view in The Wind Will Carry Us and, by doing so, brings the film even closer to us than if he had attempted to go native. There is much for the eye to take in: the harsh contrasts of weathered women in their black chadors against the village’s piercingly bright white walls; the panoramas that look like pastel-tinged Ansel Adams vistas but with layered bunches of color reminiscent of Morris Louis. Kiarostami has a sophisticated aesthetic sense that never fades into pure abstraction. His artifices are his way of moving deeply into the overwhelming mystery and emotion conjured up by this material. As with his old doctor here, Kiarostami’s preference is for the present; he’s ravished by the ineffableness of what he sees. The villagers are right: The producer is indeed looking for buried treasure. He doesn’t find it in a local cemetery, though, but in the air and the people all around him in this dappled, murmurous valley.