6. The Cyclist (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1987)
The Cyclist is the retelling of a story from director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s childhood. Nasim is an Afghan refugee who works as a well-digger in Iran. His wife is confined to the hospital and Nasim must find a way to pay for her medical treatment.
After a few failed, and legally-questionable schemes Nasim, a former endurance cycling champion, has run out of options until he meets a circus promoter who offers him an opportunity to make the money he needs. The promoter offers to pay Nasim to take on an endurance challenge whereby he rides his bike for seven consecutive days in front of a public audience who will be placing bets on how long he will last.
Rife with social commentary and scathing in its depiction of poverty, The Cyclist is a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity story similar to The Runner. Makhmalbaf uses repetition to evoke a sense of life in the film. The repetition of Nasim riding in circles makes us think of our own daily routines in which we strive to provide for the ones that we love.
This metaphor of our shared existence shatters boundaries in a world increasingly devastated by poverty, foreclosures, unemployment and a pronounced lack of suitable health care, The Cyclist remains an incredibly relevant film the world over, perhaps even more so today than when it was released in 1987.
7. Close Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
In Kiarostami’s revolutionary docu-fiction hybrid Close Up, the main ‘character’ Hossein Sabzian, has been arrested for attempted fraud after impersonating acclaimed Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf. During a meeting with Kiarostami, Sabzian asks him to pass a message on to Mr Makhmalbaf, the message is as follows: “Tell him, The Cyclist is a part of me”.
Based on a series of real events Close Up, directed by the incomparable Abbas Kiarostami (who halted production on a different project in order to make Close Up) takes us on a journey into the heart of a man so in love with the artifice of cinema, the cinema of his people, the cinema of his country that he takes on the persona of his idol in an attempt to gain attention from those who would otherwise ignore him.
While pretending to be Makhmalbaf, Sabzian was able to convince a family that he wanted them to feature in his next film, even casting their sons as actors and requesting to use their home as the set, all the while defrauding the family out of money. When he got found out, Sabzian was arrested and sent to trial. Enter Abbas Kiarostami and his camera.
Now, there is no need to go into any further detail about the plot of this film, it is truly a film that one must see in order to appreciate but it would be remiss of me to not mention a very poignant sequence in which Kiarostami brings Sabzian and Makhmalbaf together for the first time.
Shot from a great distance, across several lanes of traffic with Makhmalbaf wearing a microphone that cuts out intermittently Sabzian embraces Makhmalbaf upon meeting him. He cries like a child as he clings to this man, the one he has been impersonating. After a few moments Makhmalbaf asks Sabzian “do you prefer to be Makhmalbaf?” to which Sabzian replies: “I’m tired of being me.”
The two eventually ride off together on a motorbike, the sound continues to cut in and out (was this intentional or not on behalf of Kiarostami, we’ll never know) until eventually it goes all together leaving the two men alone as we watch them from a shared distance, in silence, through cracked windshields and side mirrors.
A benevolent and powerful film about identity, humanity and cinema created by one of the most unique filmmakers the world has ever seen.
8. A Moment of Innocence [aka Bread and Flower Pot] (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
In the 1970s, at a student protest, Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman. Twenty years later he tracked down that policeman in order to make a film about what happened to both of them on that day.
Rather than using the staid documentary format, and knowing that is very difficult to accurately document the past (people tend to remember incidents in relation to how they themselves were affected as opposed to how they actually happened), Makhmalbaf decided to tell this unique story through a recreation of the events of that fateful day, including footage of the production itself.
This questioning of the artifice of cinema and deconstruction of the filmmaking process is a tenement of Iranian New Wave cinema or post-revolutionary cinema.
A complex and engaging work about memory, time and guilt this very personal film drifts between fact and fiction in the same way our memory does. That is until the final scene when the police officer, out of frustration and anger directs the actor playing his younger self to ‘re-write history’ by recreating the event from the past completely differently to the way either man remembered it.
In the end it is Makhmalbaf himself who changes history by making this fictional reading of a true story. The freeze frame that ends A Moment of Innocence instantly draws comparisons to The 400 Blows, but this freeze frame of the bread and the flowers (hence the original title) hiding the knife which will be used to stab the policeman is far more dangerous than that of Antoine Doinel and his lack of closure.
9. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
Jean-Luc Godard once said that cinema began with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami. When I initially sent in my list of the best Iranian films of all time it was heavy on the Kiarostami and cutting his contribution down to just two or three films was incredibly difficult. Taste of Cherry only just made the cut in lieu of Where is the Friend’s House? and The Wind Will Carry Us and this is why…
Kiarostami reportedly spent eight years writing the script for Taste of Cherry, which is reflected in the authenticity of the film and its characters, namely our protagonist Mr Badii who spends the course of the film searching for someone who will bury him after he kills himself.
Minimalist and austere, the film keeps the viewers at a distance through its use of long shots. We remain engaged as even when the camera is miles above Mr Badii in his car, the dialogue permeates the scene as if we are sitting in the car alongside him. As a result, our engagement with the film is uninterrupted. Kiarostami also applies visual clues in lieu of exposition. This helps humanise Mr Badii for the audience and evokes empathy.
For example; he rarely shares the screen with other characters – this can be read as a representation of the singularity of his search. Further, the lack of women in the film can be read as a reflection of the lack of love in Mr Badii’s life. Everything we need to know about this quiet man is there to be read visually which retains an economy of dialogue throughout. This is intellectual filmmaking at its finest.
The film also features a bizarre twist at the end, which I can’t bring myself to give away. Subtle, provocative and ambiguous, Taste of Cherry, in all its minimalist glory, has earned its spot in the Criterion Collection and on the list of best films ever made.
10. The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)
The first film of Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, The Apple is a haunting work based on the true story of two sisters who were kept confined to their home, by their troubled parents for 12 years.
The film follows as the two girls are returned home after being taken into protective custody by social services. As with most new wave output the film questions the convergence of reality and artifice. Instead of making a documentary and portraying the girls as victims and their parents as monsters Makhmalbaf instead recreates events using the twins and their parents. As a result we are presented with a lament on gender equality as opposed to a sensationalist cry for help.
Makhmalbaf herself has said that the apple is a symbol for life and uses the motif throughout the film as the girls search for the evasive apples they crave, the life they have been denied. By allowing us to become enthusiastic participants in their journey we are able to share the joys of their fledgling experiences in the world for the first time. Authentic and artistic, The Apple is a stunning and confident film. You wouldn’t believe it was made by a 17 year old girl.