DVD Review Of Taste Of Cherry
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/29/07
There is the old, and often neglected, nostrum about ‘gilding the lily.’ I was reminded of this watching Abbas Kiarostami’s acclaimed 1997 film Taste Of Cherry (Ta’m E Guilass), co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for while it comes close to being a great film for the bulk of its running time of 99 minutes (not the oft-claimed 95 minutes), its much discussed ending, of breaking the fourth wall (ala Ingmar Bergman, circa the 1960s) to reveal what has just been witnessed is all a film, is one of the worst endings for a film of quality I’ve seen; perhaps even worse than the tacked on uplifting ending to Akira Kurosawa’s otherwise stellar Rashomon. The basic problem with the ending is that, unlike in Bergman’s run of self-conscious films (Persona, Hour Of The Wolf, Shame), the big ‘revelation’ that the film is a film comes after we’ve sat through it; assuming that even such a fourth wall braking could surprise one in these times. Even worse is that it undermines the penultimate scene, which is a better- if not great ending, but one which would arguably qualify Taste Of Cherry as a great film overall. And it is an all Kiarostami film, good or bad, as he produced, wrote, and edited, as well as directed it.
Critics, pro and con, have prattled on about Kiarostami’s meaning or intent, in regard to the videotaped, not filmed, ending of verdant hills (contrasting with the rest of the film’s ruddy barren rock landscapes), but always seem to miss the result, which is that it emotionally deflates the whole story. They claim things such as Kiarostami’s abnegation of preachiness, a disdain for tearjerking, some psychological reason why the reveal of the film’s fictive nature, at its end, is profound, or his desire to make indeterminacy the film’s major motif. Yet, before the ending of the film, it is not preachy, jerks no tears, is clearly fictive, and the penultimate scene spells out indeterminacy far more powerfully and cogently than the ending does. When confronted by such realities as this it is always amusing to watch fans of an artist alibi for failure when the simplest answer is simply failure- that Kiarostami did not believe enough in his film to let it end at its best point. And what the filmmaker desired to achieve, if any aside from himself could divine such a thing, is immaterial to the viewer.
The tale is rather simple, and is somewhere between the best of a 1950s Rod Serling script for The Twilight Zone and an Absurdist drama. A dour fortysomething man, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, who looks like a Persian Hank Azaria), drives about the outskirts of a small Iranian desert town (some critics claim it is Tehran, but it seems too small and deserted a city, and the film never explicitly pins down its location), in a Range Rover, where there seem to be no seatbelt laws, and queries three different people if they would do ‘a job’ for him, after having been denied by several others in the film’s opening moments. The job is to check up on him the next morning, in a grave that he has dug. They are to see if he is dead or alive, after he has taken a bottle of sleeping pills. If alive, they will assist him out of his grave. If dead, they will heap dirt on his corpse. For this task he offers a vast sum, 200,000 tomans, apparently worth more than six months of the average Iranian wage, indicating he is a man of wealth and power. Manifestly, Badii does not really want to die, as most attempted suicides are really looking for help. If he wanted to die he’d kill himself and not care what happened to his corpse. This concern, however, reveals his true neediness; albeit from a source only guessed at.
The first thought, however, as he drives around looking for men to assist him, is that he is a pedophile, for the first man he picks up is a young Kurdish soldier (Afshin Khorshid), barely out of his teens. When he is driven to the freshly dug grave he runs away as fast as he can. Kiarostami wisely does not allow Badii to reveal his intent right away, and the first episode with the soldier- shots of them driving and talking, lasts well over half an hour, a third of the film’s length. Another wise choice Kiarostami makes is to never reveal the source behind Badii’s suicidal anguish. He is similarly rejected by a young seminarist (Mir Hossein Noori) from Afghanistan, whom he meets when he arrives at an abandoned factory. He first tries recruiting the security guard, but he will not leave his job, so Badii settles for the seminarist.
Some nice philosophical exchanges occur, but when he rejects the request, Badii drives to the center of the huge construction site he has been driving about, and sits near where they are dumping excavated rock. A worker then asks him to move and we get an effectively placed ellipsis. The next thing we se is Badii’s car, from high above, yet the third man he picks up is talking. We go several minutes before even seeing the man’s face, which shows Kiarostami building tension, for this man is amenable to the request, and we want to see what sort of man or monster would assist Badii. He is just an old Turk taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), who needs the money for his own child’s medical bills, and regales Badii with a joke and a tale of how he was prevented from suicide, himself, in 1960, by the taste of cherries from a tree. He has also killed some quails for his job at the Museum Of Natural History.
It is worth noting that the three would be executioners Badii picks up are all not ethic Iranians or Persians, but minority groups from other countries, a point that no published critic I’ve read seems to have noted. As the film ends, Badii seems to have second thoughts, for after dropping off the old Turk at his job, he pursues him and asks him to make extra sure he is dead before heaping the dirt on him. He then walks off, satisfied, and watches the sun set. He then makes his way to the grave, gets in, then the screen goes black for a while, and we seem to hear rain, the sign of life’s renewal. Then, the fourth wall is unfortunately, and superfluously, broken.
The landscape where this film was shot is simply gorgeous, abounding in orange and russet hues that could pass for the planet Mars, as well as providing a stark depiction of the emptiness that Badii must feel. They also remind one of the abandoned landscapes of 1950s Italian Neo-Realist films. Also, we almost never see Badii and his would be gravediggers in the same shot, and never while in the vehicle. Badii is alone and apart from the rest of humanity, in all ways. Also, until the last moments, we never see the hole that Badii has dug, and even then we only see the portion his head lays in.
While most critics have picked up on the manifest rightness or wrongness of suicide as being a theme of the film, the deeper question is really whether or not a person will violate their own code of ethics to help another person in pain? The former question is open to each person’s inner personal debate, while the latter seems to have itself answered in the affirmative, even if it takes some doing. One might, therefore, consider Taste Of Cherry an optimistic film. This is further bolstered by the fact that rain renews at film’s end, and that all the dour proceedings we have witnessed are rendered emotionally moot, since Kiarostami won’t even let the viewer suspend their disbelief after the blackness. Not that the blackout ending would have been so deep nor original, but it is leagues above the final appendix. Some bad critics claim that the film’s appended ending is anti-escapist, for its ‘reality,’ and rhapsodize on ever second of frame, to avoid the basic reality that it’s a very poor artistic choice, and one which reveals that Kiarostami, again, likely wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. He wanted to be able to claim multiple things with the ending, without committing to even one that ended the film well. In fact, the ending is the ultimate escapism, for all that the viewer has been asked to emotionally invest in beforehand is revealed as nothing of deeper consequence than a philosophical posit. Thus, all the characters are not ‘real’- even though, of course, we know this, even in the suspended disbelief sense. Worst of all, the film ends with Louis Armstrong playing a maudlin jazz trumpet on St. James Infirmary, one of the worst artistic mismatches between imagery and sound captured on film.
Even Roger Ebert, whose film criticisms are as scattershot as any critic’s I have ever read, grew tired of Kiarostami’s seeming game playing with the audience:
….I am not impatiently asking for action or incident. What I do feel,
however, is that Kiarostami’s style here is an affectation; the subject matter
does not make it necessary, and is not benefited by it.
If we’re to feel sympathy for Badhi, wouldn't it help to know more about him? To know, in fact, anything at all about him? What purpose does it serve to suggest at first he may be a homosexual? (Not what purpose for the audience- what purpose for Badhi himself? Surely he must be aware his intentions are being misinterpreted.) And why must we see Kiarostami's camera crew- a tiresome distancing strategy to remind us we are seeing a movie? If there is one thing Taste Of Cherry does not need, it is such a reminder: The film is such a lifeless drone that we experience it only as a movie.
While I disagree with Ebert’s overall rejection of the total film, and his claim re: the homosexuality gambit, his anger over the breaking of the fourth wall is justified, as is his claim of affectation, even if I do not feel the film is a lifeless drone. Ebert also disseminates the tale that Kiarostami filmed Taste Of Cherry with himself asking non-actors to bury him, thus why we do not see Badii in the same shots with the others. But, this fact is disputed by other critics of the film.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is very good. There is only a filmography, trailer and an 18 minute interview with the director, where he talks of censorship, his love of films that make one want to doze off (he succeeded with this film, with me, incidentally), and Quentin Tarantino. No audio commentary was made, which is a shame, as is the fact that the film is not dubbed, only subtitled in English from its native Farsi. It is a beautifully transferred film, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, even if it is not up to the usual high Criterion standards, in terms of extras.
Taste Of Cherry has moments of rapturous almost pure cinema, where the visuals alone can sustain the film and indeed do last longer than the lesser parts of the film, but, ultimately, that quality and its often clever script, are undone by the ending. It does not ruin the film, in terms of making it a bad film, but it does keep it from the elusive goal of greatness, for it plays out as an attempt at innovation when, in reality, it was already decades passé (as well as being inappropriate to end the film). Kiarostami’s film views the human from a telescopic and microscopic position, and which is the more revealing is debatable. That such an innovative approach is substantially ruined by the poor ending is a shame, even if as human as the dilemma it traces.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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