The Saturday Auteur

Abbas Kiarostami: the art of visualising life’s most complicated questions
By Ollie Dixon | Film+TV | 9 October 2021

The Traveler by Abbas Kiarostami, 1974

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

“My eyes are watchful of life itself, and my senses are focussed on my environment, I could say without a doubt, it is the experience of living and what goes on around me and not the cinema nor literature that is most influential”

Speaking here on what influences his art, Abbas Kiarostami succinctly exemplifies his cinematic project. It is “life itself”, in all its hardship and beauty, and the (im)possibility of representing this reality cinematically that concerns Kiarostami’s most famous works. Exhibiting a contemplative, documentary style, Kiarostami’s cinema provides the space for viewers to immerse themselves in the simplest of stories, which simultaneously ask some of life’s most complicated questions.

The Bread and Alley by Abbas Kiarostami, 1970

Kiarostami was born in 1940 in Tehran, Iran. He began his artistic endeavours as a painter and graphic designer before moving to advertisements. Despite his prominence as a filmmaker, Kiarostami continually experimented with many artistic mediums throughout his life.

He released his first film, The Bread and Alley, in 1970 for the Iranian Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The film follows a young boy as he tries to get home through an alley guarded by a dog. The Bread and Alley marks not only Kiarostami’s move into cinema but his engagement with childhood and diegetic simplicity that is evident across many of his later films.

From the late 1980s through to the late 1990s, Kiarostami produced his most well-known and well-regarded works. Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, docu-fiction classic Close-Up and the ever-shifting meta-narratives of The Koker Trilogy all arrived in this time. All serve as gateways into Kiarostami’s oeuvre and reflect his key themes and cinematic concerns.

Taste of Cherry

Taste of Cherry follows Mr Badii, a man with an unexplained past, on the outskirts of Tehran as he searches for someone to help bury his body after he has committed suicide. Set mostly in Badii’s car as he picks up and attempts to convince three separate men to help him, the simple diegesis belies a grander, contemplative and more spiritual journey.

Of the three men Badii approaches to help him, two refuse. The first, a young soldier, flees and the second, a seminarist, tries to convince Badii that suicide is wrong. The final man, a taxidermist, agrees to help Badii but he tries to convince Badii that life is worth living.

Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami, 1977

The honest and lucid soliloquy he delivers carries with it an expression of the divinity of life itself. The taxidermist claims he decided not to kill himself after experiencing the taste of cherries and a beautiful sunrise in what were almost his final moments. It is here we find Kiarostami’s expression of immanence, of the divine within the material world. It is not the transcendent world of God’s commands that makes life worth living, as the seminarist claims, but life itself.

At the film’s end, Kiarostami complicates matters by introducing a coda. Digital video footage of him and the crew shooting parts of the film play out before Kiarostami announces the end of shooting. The coda serves as a blatant reminder that what we have seen is constructed: we ourselves must turn to life in search of the hope exemplified by the taxidermist.

Taste of Cherry’s minimalist, contemplative realism accentuates the slow passing of time allowing both Kiarostami, his characters and the spectator to ask, answer and experience such questions of life across what is surely Kiarostami’s masterwork.

The Koker Trilogy

The Koker Trilogy began in 1987 with the release of Where is the Friend’s House?, a formally simple yet entrancing story of a schoolchild who must return his friend’s misplaced homework book.

However, after a destructive earthquake hit Iran in 1990 the whereabouts of the child actors who featured in Where is the Friend’s House? was unknown. In the second film of the trilogy, And Life Goes On, Kiarostami returns to the locale of the trilogy’s first film, introducing an actor who plays the director of Where is the Friend’s House? searching for this film’s stars who may be lost under the rubble of the earthquake.

Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami, 1990

Filmed months after the initial devastation of the earthquake, And Life Goes On does not shy away from emphasising the differences between reality and representation. Whilst the film attempts to reconstruct the horrors of the disaster, the presence of a fictional director and jolting instances of breaking the fourth wall challenges the reality of the fiction. Through the Olive Trees, the final film of the trilogy, intensifies this challenge by featuring a fictionalised reconstruction of the events witnessed in And Life Goes On.

The Koker Trilogy’s layered complexity questions cinema’s ability to represent the truth of a tragedy like an earthquake. Such challenges exhibit Kiarostami’s courage as a filmmaker to produce films with bottomless depth. Indeed, a cinema that perennially points us back to life and its beauty, a cinema that points us both away and towards itself, is a cinema that you can eternally return to in search of unanswerable, yet endlessly askable questions.

And Life Goes On by Abbas Kiarostami, 1992

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