Taste of Cherry

spoilers ahead

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” opens with a long shot of a middle-aged man driving through the streets of Tehran. Young men press against the window of his car, begging for work. He drives on with disinterest. He stops by a mine outside the city and questions a worker whose job it is to pick up plastic bags. He offers the worker a “high-paid job.” Is he looking for a hookup? We don’t know. But we are already drawn into the film -- we see the restless determination in his eyes, and before we even know what he is looking for, we identify with his urgency. It is only 24 minutes into the film when the audience learns that he plans to climb into a hole and take some sleeping pills that night, and he is looking for someone to throw dirt over his body the next morning.

When “Taste of Cherry” was released, Roger Ebert called it “excruciatingly boring.” Admittedly, it is very minimalist – pretty much the entire film consists either of shots of the driver, Mr. Badii, trying to convince guests in his passenger’s seat to do the job, or extreme wide shots of his car moving through the dusty, almost Martian, Iranian countryside. There is no music, no action, very little conflict. The main character has little obvious personality. The story is never resolved. Ebert was not put off by these things per se – he just thought that in this specific case “Kiarostami's style … is an affectation; the subject matter does not make it necessary, and is not benefited by it.”

The style of “Taste of Cherry” is necessary. Ebert thinks Kiarostami’s minimalism distracts from the core of the film; on the contrary, it is the core of the film. By stripping away all extraneous elements, Kiarostami is reaching for something deep and universal. He is trying to express the ebb and flow of sorrow, without the narrative by which we might make sense of it.

Complete minimalism forces the viewer to confront the story, without the release of synthesized emotion. Think of the rush you get when a familiar song kicks in during a film. Comforting four-chord-loops are a chaperone leading the viewer along – “here we have sadness, on your left a jump scare, and up ahead excitement.” This manipulation is not a bad thing – most great films do it – but Kiarostami is searching for emotion that emanates only from the basic mechanics of the story, deliberately avoiding the enhancements and highlights that can be added in the editing room.

The minimalism does not stop at his cinematography and editing; he presents his story in a fundamentally unorthodox way. Given the premise, “A man has a series of conversations about his intention to commit suicide,” many writers' first instinct would be to come up with a backstory for the character, an explanation for how he has gotten to this tragic point, and find a hard-hitting way to present it. In Taste of Cherry, we never learn why Mr. Badii wants to commit suicide. To present that information would be to give the audience an easy way out, an individual story to focus on; but Kiaarostami’s goal is not to convey an individual story, his goal is to express something universal. The audience understands that it doesn’t matter why Badii is suicidal. Suffice it to say that life sucks.

As the film progresses, and night approaches, we grow increasingly tense. Is he going to go through with his plan? He repeatedly tells his passengers that he may or may not commit suicide; if he is alive when they drive out the next morning, they should help him out of the hole. If he is dead, bury him. Just like a possible backstory, the resolution to this tension is a rich narrative vein that most writers would have tapped dry. I can imagine a beautiful scene at the end of the film where a passenger convinces Badii that life is worth living, and he tearfully breaks down in the passenger’s arms. Actually, we do get half of this – Badii’s last passenger, the one who ultimately agrees to bury him, does give an impassioned defense of life:

My dear man, your mind is ill, but there's nothing wrong with you. Change your outlook. I had left home to kill myself but a mulberry changed me -- an ordinary, unimportant mulberry. You have to change your outlook and change the world. Be optimistic! Look at things positively! You're in your prime! At dawn, don’t you want to see the sun rise? The red and yellow of the sun at sunset, don’t you want to see that anymore? The night of the full moon, don’t you want to see it again? Don’t you ever want to drink water from a spring again? You want to give up the taste of cherries?

It is a touching speech, but it does not cause Badii to break town in tears, nor to argue with the man. He drives on in silence. That night, from outside the window of his apartment, we see him preparing to leave. We never learn whether he took the pills or not. He drives out to the hole, gets in and lies down. He stares up at the sky. Thunder rolls through the dark night sky and rain begins to fall. We fade to black. It is a dark and mysterious ending; the audience is never rewarded for their patience with a happy or sad resolution.

But I lie. That is not the ending. After the film fades out on the sounds of pouring rain, there is a long blackout. Then, grainy footage shows soldiers laughing and chatting on a sunny mountainside. We suddenly see Kiarostami himself filming “Taste of Cherry,” recording some background noise with his crew for a scene earlier in the film. This is how the film ends – with documentary footage of its own inception, accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s melancholy “St. James Infirmary.”

With this surprising ending, Kiarostami is ripping away one last thing from us, something we didn’t expect to be ripped away – the fantasy that what we are watching is real. Being shown that the preceding 90 minutes was all constructed is Kiarostami’s way of forcing us to truly grapple with it. For the whole film, there has been nothing to prod us into feeling something, and now there is no illusion of reality, either. The last façade is torn down. We are able to come into direct contact with Badii and ourselves once we recognize him as what he is – a character – and recognize what we are – an audience. Ebert called it “a tiresome distancing strategy.” I say it brings the viewer closer to the story.

“Taste of Cherry” is one of the most honest films, more honest than any documentary I have seen. It isolates and channels the raw, wordless power of being alive and being in pain -- not positive power, or negative power, but the sheer force of the universe that weighs down on us at all times. In my favorite scene of the film, Badii gets out of his car and wanders into an active construction site. He sits down amidst the noisy maelstrom of tractors and dump-trucks depositing thousands of tons of dirt. We see his shadow fall on a wall of spewing dirt. He sits, enveloped by the overwhelming clouds of dust, in silence.

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