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Taste of Cherry (Ta'm e Guilass)

(Irab, 1997, 95 minutes, color, 35 mm in Arabic and Persian with English subtitles)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Homayon Ershadi . . . . . . . . . . Mr. Badii
Abdolrahman Bagheri . . . . . . . . . Mr. Baghi (the taxidermist)
Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari. . . . . . . . . . Soldier
Safar Ali Moradi . . . . . . . . . . The Soldier
Mir Hossein Noori. . . . . . . . . . The Seminarian

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Image16.jpg 9.5 KGetting a major film made in fundamentalist Iran requires an appropriately theological attitude: the work has to be parochial enough to satisfy the mullahs who monitor state culture at a dozen different points, yet it must also be a work of widespread and universal meaning if the film is to have international success. Abbas Kiarostami has negotiated this narrow path with extraordinary success. His TASTE OF CHERRY (winner of the Palme D’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 1997) had to survive a tortuous three-level censorship process. First, cast, crew, and script had to pass scrutiny for the film to receive a production permit. Then, the finished film had to be screened for the purity of Islamic cultural ideals, in order to receive a screening permit. And finally, state authorities had to decide whether the film would receive status as a ‘quality’ film, which would allow it to be advertised on the state-owned television network and get the best playing times at the nation’s most prestigious theaters. Throughout the process, the representation of women and of sexual desire is strictly regulated. The 1979 revolution was hard on the Iranian film industry in other ways, including the wave of arson that destroyed hundreds of theaters in the name of anti-Western purification. Thousands of films which had been previously shown in the country were reevaluated by state censors, and only a few hundred survived to be certified for screening again, a deep blow to the nation’s film culture.

Yet the Iranian industry is thriving; some 300 directors are active (including a dozen women), and film production is rising to pre-revolutionary levels of 60 to 70 films a year. The Iranian New Wave film makers, Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Bayzai, Amir Naderi and Parviz Sayyad, have launched an ascetic, deeply spiritual body of films into a worldwide arena. Abbas Kiarostami is both the elder statesmen and the internationally recognized master of the Iranian cinema.

His work has clear affinities with Italian neorealism; he has been described as a kind of Iranian Roberto Rossellini. His admirers among other major film makers are legion. Because his films combine an absurdist world view with a resolutely humanist optimism, his films have created a remarkable colleagueship among artists whose own approaches differ widely from one another; Jean-Luc Godard, Nanni Moretti, Chris Marker, and others have praised him. One of his greatest devotees was Akira Kurosawa; for Kurosawa, Kiarostami’s films are luminous monuments in the history of cinema: "Words cannot describe my feelings about them, and I simply advise you to see his films. . . When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place."

Kiarostami’s own pronouncements on his brand of film art have the elliptical aura of a man who knows his words and actions are being closely observed. His remarkable filmography, two dozen shorts, documentaries, and features beginning in 1970, concentrates on a sharply-defined range of themes clustered around a humanistic search for individual meaning in a confusing world, a world whose harshness is often symbolized by the forbidding, mountainous Iranian landscape. Yet these films avoid presenting Islam as the only way through this spiritual crisis. Of this quietly fearless tack, Kiarostami only shrugs and quotes Herbert Marcuse: "We don’t choose the subject, the subject chooses us." Are his films depictions of an alternative to rigorous Islamic communalism? Kiarostami shrugs again: "We can never get close to the truth except by lying."

It is clear that Kiarostami has, in fact, chosen his subjects carefully. TASTE OF CHERRY is the story of man, "Mr. Badii," who, in the face of personal and social pressures, is contemplating, indeed planning, an elaborate suicide. The film is his quest for an accomplice. Through the arid, dusty hills of Tehran, at a strange, allegorical construction site, he searches for a partner in this act of supreme egoism, his own self-destruction. A soldier, Turks, Afghans, prisoners, a seminary student, a museum employee, all are enlisted. But one by one, those he approaches turn him down. Religious scruples, fear, and optimism deny him a confederate.

TASTE OF CHERRY’s resolution is a startling one; Kiarostami has had to defend its seeming illogic and eeriness in several interviews. He usually does so with another shrug: "I did think this was a really big risk, but it was a risk worth taking. Even when I hear people arguing about the ending of the film, I like it because it means the movie hasn’t ended. . . that the film has a life in their minds."

Many of Kiarostami’s films, such as 1987’s WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME feature children on a metaphorical journey whose real ends are not made clear. In The Key, a screenplay he wrote for fellow director Ebrahim Forouzeh in the mid-1980’s, a child spends 70 minutes of screen time searching for a way out of a locked apartment. "People in countries are like children. While their parents may be fighting, they still establish relationships. Even though they are children from different households, they still have a relationship."

It has been a struggle, but Abbas Kiarostami has found a way, even under the eyes of the Iranian regime, to say exactly what he wants to say. That many of his films seem like elaborate, essentially wordless, parables is not coincidental. For all their seeming Otherness, believes Kiarostami, post-Revolutionary Iranians are walking a universal path. Theirs is the same slow, painful trudge across the forbidding mountains and into an ever-receding middle distance that all modern souls have to make. Thus, the journey of TASTE OF CHERRY is less an Iranian one than a human one. And by taking it, we may find commonality with a culture whose ways Westerners have yet to come to grips with.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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