“When you’re unhappy, you hurt other people, too”
Abbas Kiarostami’s drama film Taste of Cherry (Persian: Ta’m e guilass, 1997) managed to be one of the winners of the 1997 Palme d’Or in Cannes, dividing critics and audiences to date regarding its artistic value, concept and execution. Iranian films do not necessarily get the attention they deserve, unless they are featured in renowned international award competitions.
Perhaps this is due to poor marketing and their complete dismissal of the camera techniques used by most countries. Or maybe it’s down to the choice of topics that will not only stall an escaping train of thought, but call for introspection and a heated debate long after the film has ended.
In the barren wastelands around Tehran, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershad) is on the lookout for a man for a job in exchange for a generous amount of money. His eluding way of talking and mannerisms initially suggest a homosexual pick-up that earns him a lot of suspicious and unwelcoming interactions. Yet, Mr. Badii does not stop his quest to find the right person.
He eventually reveals his true intentions, which scare everyone he meets away. He wants someone to cover the grave he dug for himself once he has committed suicide. But such a request can not be easily granted in an Islamic country, where the act is prohibited by the Quran. Or can it? Will his plan succeed, or will the taste of a cherry change his mind?
The first part of the film is nothing but an allegory of the barren soul of a depressed, middle-aged man. Visually overtaken by dust, rocks, holes and winding roads, we find out nothing about our protagonist and his source of sadness, or the reasons behind his suicide plan. This missing information, integral to the story, is accentuated by repeated scenery and dialogue, which mulls over life and death.
A distant bulldozer digs the arid earth just in the same way Mr. Badii dug a grave to consume him at the end of his final day. It seems as if every image and every sound in this film aims to deliver a hidden message.
Ershadi’s acting seems weak and passionless by Western standards, but a closer look at the montage reveals a deliberate mechanism behind it. All of his interactions with the rest of the amateur cast are sewn together rather than presented face-to-face, which enhances the feelings of loneliness and alienation. Just like the protagonist, the viewer is completely detached from the story.
An extended dark screen erupts at the end of the protagonist’s journey, but the falling rain is not the end. Suddenly, the camera crew and the director break the fourth wall, adding a trumpet solo and a group of soldiers to the mix. This, understandably, leaves the audience even more confused and suspicious of the validity of any belief held prior.
And this is precisely the bizarre beauty of this film. Everything is unexpected. Nothing is explained. It’s all up to each of us to interpret and dissect: Badii’s fate, life, death, and the control one exerts over their own being and understanding. Suicide is a difficult topic to approach, especially in certain belief systems and cultural backgrounds. Nonetheless, Kiarostami presents this universal issue with abundant ambiguity, focusing more on its philosophical dimensions than any dogma, religion, and theory praising the splendid gift of life against one’s personal will.
A minimalist, linear narrative takes us on a road trip through the arid hills and ideas with the topic of life and death being left open to discussion. As viewers, we are given full freedom to draw our own conclusions regarding everything we see and understand. And it is with such power that we ultimately have to decide whether the lyrical elements outweigh the monotonous process of this drama.
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