Taste of Cherry (1997) طعم گيلاس

Country: Iran
Language: Persian, Dari
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1997 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1997 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
(tied with Shohei Imamura’s Unagi)
1998 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards: BSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film
1999 National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Nominations:
1999 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1999 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Abbas Kiarostami is a defining figure in Iranian cinema, the prolific and versatile 70-year-old director not shying away from controversial issues or avant-garde cinematic techniques in his massive repertoire. Ten (2002) for instance, highlights the socio-political landscape of Iran through the eyes of a woman as she drives through and speaks to ten strangers in Tehran over several days. There is no forgetting Shirin (2008), too, a movie featuring a series of simple close-up shots of female faces as they appear to be watching a film that can only be heard through dialogue in the background. Their raw visceral emotions are captured all too naturally in the film that premiered at Venice International Film Festival.

Though being released over a decade ago, Taste of Cherry (1997) is no different in terms of its stance. The film deals with suicide, a cause célèbre that is frowned upon in contemporary Islamic societies as it goes against Muslim beliefs, yet widely embraced by terror extremists today in its martyr acts. The protagonist is Mr Badii (Homayon Ershadi), and the camera becomes a voyeur in a cinema vérité technique that is used to document the moments leading up to Mr Badii’s eventual demise. But this death is only implied and not shown on the camera. We don’t see his body, and the audience is left to decide for themselves what happened in an open ending that throws up a lot of moral principle disputes surrounding professionalism towards a job that is paid for versus one’s own values and beliefs. Will you participate in burying a random stranger who has commited suicide—because he has given up on himself and the world—in a business dealing that sees a lot of money at stake?

And this is what happened in the minimalist film. Mr Badii drives through a city suburb looking for someone who could carry out the task. The irony is clear – there are innumerable unemployed laborers clambering at his car asking whether he was hiring any as he drives through the city. At every traffic junction, there are bound to be some laborers who approached Mr Badii, the implication of the luxury of owning a car in Iran at those times. Yet he fends them off and opts not to speak to them. He has his eyes set only on particular strangers to whom he has acquired a liking and the right feeling to. A greater paradox is how Mr Badii appears to have it all with the wealth he possesses but yet decided to end it all, in contrast to the unemployed laborers who meander on with the everyday fruitlessness of their lives.

There is the cowardly, young cadet who gladly accepts the ride of a stranger but was so frightened about the job that he flees from the car despite being in the middle of nowhere. There is the religious seminarist who preaches on and on about his religion’s point of view against suicide, but to no avail. And there is a taxidermist who once contemplated suicide, and it is this character—who has been there and (almost) done that—whom can best empathize with the feeling of wanting to end it all.

Many long takes comprise of the shot, and the movie meanders along a leisurely pace that does not feel draggy, primarily because of the reflections that it encourages. Erstwhile, long-range distance shots are interspersed with proximity close-ups that create a jarring contrast in the perception of the size of an individual in contrast to the magnitude of the world.

It is frustrating from the audience point of view as Kiarostami totally shirks away from revealing the reason behind Mr Badii’s suicide intent. But this creates manifold consequences. First, from the perspective of the film, it does not allow the audience any leeway to create a judgment of Mr Badii for his decisions to end his life, of whether his motivation is a valid one or not. He is “relentless” (Santas, 2000) in not revealing his reasons, and the triviality of this motivation is cast against the greater deed of commit suicide, and we see Mr Badii meander through the final desolate moments of his life. More importantly, the film encourages the audience to reflect and look upon oneself as a judgmental soul. How often has one’s judgment impeded one’s view from the bigger picture, or colored one’s point of view against the actions of an individual? That is, indeed, my biggest takeaway from watching this minimalistic film, rather than the moralistic dilemma faced by Mr Badii throughout the film. And this, is perhaps what makes the film so powerful and so deserving of the Palme d’Or it clinched at Cannes 1997.

References

Santas, C. (2000) Concepts of Suicide in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. Retrieved on October 1, 2010, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/9/taste.html.

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