No less a person than Akira Kurosawa had this to say about the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami: “When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
I had only seen one film by Kiarostami, A Taste of Cherry. It was universally declared a masterpiece, but I just didn’t get it. I didn’t watch anything else by him for years. It might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my cinematic life.
Once again, I am going to extol the Criterion Channel, which has allowed me to catch up with many missed masterpieces. I had watched Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon last week and when reading about it, I learned that Panahi was Kiarostami’s protege, and that his film was greatly influenced by Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? So, I watched it.
Like The White Balloon, Where is the Friend’s Home tells the story of a child on a quest. This child’s quest is not the self-serving quest to get a goldfish for herself for the New Year celebration. The little boy in this film has accidentally taken his desk mate’s notebook home with him after class. His desk mate has been humiliated several times by their teacher, and threatened with punishment, for not doing his homework in his notebook because he had left it at his cousin’s house. Since our hero has his little friend’s notebook, he fears that the teacher will get angry and expel his hapless desk mate. He has a vague idea where his friend lives in the next village and, despite his mother’s forbidding him to leave, the moral imperative to do right by his friend is so strong that there is no question that he must get the notebook back, despite impossible odds. The trip from his home town of Koker to the nearby town of Poshteh where he thinks his friend lives comprises the bulk of the film.
This very simple premise spins out into an epic quest. The quiet building of the climax is as subtle and as powerful as anything in the films of Ozu. The denouement is understated and simply gorgeous. It is unexpected and inevitable.
If it had been a stand-alone film, it would have still been a high point of world cinema. But five years and two films later, Kiarostami made And Life Goes On and that is when things get transcendent.
And Life Goes On opens with a man and his young son on a road trip. We find that they are driving from Tehran to the site of the recent devastating earthquake in the north. The objective of this quest is to see if the two actors who played the little boys in Where is the Friend’s Home survived the disaster. Shot on the site of the earthquake, the pair run into many of the non-professional actors from the first film in their ‘real’ life. Perhaps the man on the quest is a stand-in for Kiarostami himself?
The difficulty of looking for the boys echoes the travails of the little hero of Where is the Friend’s Home. The quest in the first film is constantly thwarted by an adult world that cannot or will not understand the urgency of what he must do. The quest in the second film is thwarted by nothing less than nature itself, in the form of the earthquake that has made chaos of life. But both of these conflicts give Kiarostami and his co-writer the opportunity to explore the richness of this almost primitive world that none of us know, perhaps not even people from Tehran.
There are many visual rhymes that connect both films and the meta-textual references to the characters and actors of the previous film expand this cinematic world in a dizzying way.
But wait! There’s more!
Two years later Kiarostami makes Through The Olive Trees.
The premise of this film is the behind-the-scenes look at the making of And Life Goes On. The protagonist of that film is now shown as what he is, an actor playing the role of the director of Where is the Friend’s House. An elaborate and heartbreaking back story is given to a short scene from And Life Goes On. We watch the scene being shot, take after take, all the while learning about the life of the ‘characters’ on either side of the fictional camera shooting And Life Goes On.
The denouements of each succeeding film are increasingly ambiguous. The closer each film gets to ‘real life’ the larger the scope becomes and the less neat its conclusion.
The final shot of Through The Olive Trees is one of the most audacious set-ups I can think of. Its exquisite resolution is just perfect for the ‘real life’ we have arrived at by the end of this trilogy.
I can’t wait to see more by this master. I will start by rewatching A Taste of Cherry