Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) was one of the most influential post-revolution (1978-79) Second Wave filmmakers of Iran, who accrued universal attention for his atypical cinematic style. Kiarostami helped in setting up the film department for Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon). In the 20 years during which he made films for Kanoon, he developed his individualistic style.
Kiarostami’s cinema is austere and devoid of an ostentatious mise-en-scène. He often empaneled non-actors to play the roles in his films, in order to leverage their wisdom and sincerity. His style is known for having a mix of fiction and documentary-like elements. His distinguishing cinematic techniques include scenes shot in cars, panoramic long shots, intimate close-ups, real time filming, and a realistic diegetic soundtrack.
He created a poetic cinema by not only using poetry of Persian poets such as Omar Khayyám, Sohrab Sepehri, and Forough Farrokhzad in themes and dialogues, but also by metaphorically linking it with his films. He replaced a large part of the narrative with poetic imagery.
Despite his orientation towards minimalism, his cinema is artistically evolved and intellectually challenging. His films often deal with deep philosophical complexities and tickle the conscience. Some recurring themes in his cinema are about life and death, oppressive society, and the search for identity.
Kiarostami gives the audience space for constructive expressionism by keeping the film’s endings abstract and open-ended. His films invite the audience to introspect, challenge conventions, and appreciate unorthodox shots. The scenes selected here illustrate Kiarostami’s distinct cinematic style and make us question existential truths.
1. Ride with the taxidermist from “Taste of Cherry” (1997)
The scene shows Mr. Badii driving with Mr Bagheri, the taxidermist who takes him up on his offer to bury him the morning after he has committed suicide, in exchange for a sum of money. Nevertheless, Mr. Bagheri tries to dissuade Mr Badii by recounting his own bittersweet story of being rescued from killing himself when he accidently finds a cause for which to live.
Mr. Badii, however, is unmoved by the speech. As he puts it, others may understand his suffering, but he “feels” it. The force of isolation and suffering has rendered him incapable of drawing any happiness. His position urges us to consider the sine qua non of being at peace, developing spiritual maturity to accept the coexistence of suffering and joy.
As philosopher Alan Watts had commented, “human consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.”
Kiarostami exemplifies the impact of their exchange by synthesizing long shots and close-ups of the protagonists, while keeping the dialogue audible for the audience. It is a composition that derives its importance from the topography, the dialogue, and most importantly, Mr. Badii’s Land Rover.
2. Behzad and the doctor on the motorcycle talk about life and death from “The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999)
In the scene, Behzad and a local doctor travel on a motorcycle amongst wheat fields, and the doctor praises the virtues of nature, and states that only death can preclude one from rejoicing the wonders of nature.
Set in Kurdish Iran, the location for “The Wind Will Carry Us” was unique at the time, not only for Kiarostami’s cinema, but also for Iranian cinema in general. The landscape in this scene is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields” series, through which the painter wanted to encourage suffering people to find solace in the picture of nature’s vitality, rather than on “the other side of life.”
The interaction with the doctor played an important role in Behzad’s journey of self-discovery. Critic Alain Bergala remarked that Behzad’s transformed perception is “a new look at the world freed of all impurity of intention and utilitarianism and accepting the enigma of otherness.”
The scene resonates with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanent nature of existence and living wholesomely in the present. A present-centered living would align our consciousness to our existence and facilitate intrinsic liberation.
3. Puya stays back to watch football in Poshteh while his father goes to Koker from “Life and Nothing More” (1992)
“Life and Nothing More” is based on Kiarostami’s real-life experience – a trip with his son, after the 1990 Manjil–Rudbar earthquake, made to ascertain the fate of two young actors from “Where Is The Friend’s Home?”.
The earthquake caused mass destruction, but Kiarostami refrained from documenting the loss and grief. Instead, inspired by the vitality of the people affected by the earthquake, he made a film on the efforts of people towards re-institutionalization.
Throughout the film, there are varied examples of people’s activities toward continued survival. Yet, the most poignant one is of a man setting up a TV antenna to watch the football match. The scene is reportedly based on an actual incident that Kiarostami witnessed during his trip.
The director’s son, Puya, and Mohammad Reza, a survivor, bond over their passion for football. They even bet on the outcome and discuss the practicality of earnings. Their playfulness lends levity to an otherwise somber situation.
Ironically, Puya ends up watching the football match at an afflicted place and the displaced children promise Puya’s father they’ll take good care of him. Their benevolence shows the survival of the human spirit and goodness amidst the devastation.
This scene shows that both collective suffering and also collective resilience have brought the people together and softened the blow of the disaster.
4. Hossein follows Tahereh through the olive trees from “Through the Olive Trees” (1994)
“Through the Olive Trees” is essentially a love story circling around Hossein, whose marriage proposal to Tahereh is rejected by her family on grounds of class differences.
Hossein, however, endorses a rather simplistic ideology, advocating that “matrimonium” of opposites yields order and harmony. He regards Tahereh and himself as the elemental Yin and Yang who belong together. What follows is Hossein’s ardent pursuit to make Tahereh realize that he is the ideal suitor for her, extending into a ‘chase’ through the olive grove.
The chase is a static long shot where the two actors move farther away, until they turn into amorphous white spots against a distinct bucolic backdrop. This scene demonstrates Kiarostami’s prowess as a landscape artist, replacing narrative with imagery.
While the fate of the couple is not revealed, Cimarosa’s Oboe Concerto, performed in allegro, fosters hope for a positive outcome. The new “relationship” is perhaps also symbolic of new beginnings after a calamity that caused mass destruction and claimed many lives.
Although the love scene is modest, the sentiment is conveyed without entering into a brazen territory and while adhering to censorship regulations, making it notably endearing.
5. Mania’s third conversation with her son, Amin from “Ten” (2002)
“Ten” is Mania’s journey into feminist consciousness as she engages in conversations about love, life, and passion with her passengers. These dialogues are punctuated with heated arguments with her son, Amin, who is embittered about his mother divorcing and remarrying.
In earlier sequences, Mania justifies her decisions to her son, but without success. However, in their third sequence together, there is a sense of resignation in Mania’s tone, and even a hint of indulgence in Amin’s stereotypical perspective.
The young boy is an embodiment of the hegemonic masculinity whose unalike expectations from his mother and father reverberate the patriarchal system saddled by the weight of tradition.
Unlike in Kiarostami’s “The Report”, where patriarchy manifests itself in the form of physical violence inflicted by the husband on his wife, “Ten” shows us that it’s a “man’s world” through Amin’s strong belief system.
It is a reminder of the universally repressed female society that beholds the view that women have to show modesty and dedication to family and home, while men are the breadwinners.
Although Mania shows acquiescence towards her son’s perspective, she defies traditional gender roles and claims some independence in the oppressive society. Ironically, she even answers her son’s questions about operating a car, something conventionally associated with men.