Taste of Cherry (1997)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? On the classic film club watch list.

Cast, crew, etc

Driving around the outskirts of Tehran in his Range Rover, Mr Badii is looking for help. He asks the everyday people he encounters – a soldier, a student, a security guard – if they will do a job for him. Most assume he means something sexual, or at least nefarious, and decline. But Mr Badii has a different and much more unusual task in mind: he is weighing suicide, and looking for someone to assist him in leaving this world.

Abbas Kiarostami’s meditative, philosophical drama expertly balances several different thematic ideas at once.

On the surface, there is commentary on life in contemporary Iran; a country awkwardly positioned between traditional ways (the mosques, the traditonal markets and music), and modernisation (Mr Badii’s Western style car and clothes). This links to a view of the lopsided economy, where many people are living in poverty and doing manual labour; one man Mr Badii encounters lives in a garbage dump and sells plastic bags he scavengers, another lives in a make shift shanty, doing who knows what. Everyone he encounters is poor.

But our main character cruises through all of this economic disadvantage in a comfortable little bubble, represented again by his car. In a country where most people are relying on their feet for transport, or maybe own a scooter, Mr Badii’s 4WD confirms his status. And this says something about his mindset. Where the people around him are engaged in a day to day struggle for survival, constantly hustling for food and shelter, his relative wealth has brought him enough quiet space to think on his life, and become disillusoned. Depression, as depicted in this movie, is a luxury item.

Mr Badii’s suicidal thoughts are at odds with Islam, which several characters point out. His torturous linguistic efforts to justify what he wants to do made me think of a book I read about Al Qaeda, which detailed how radical Islamic scholars had done the same thing to justify terror attacks that killed innocent people (strictly forbidden by the Koran). This element of the movie is about how idealism can be, and definitely is, corrupted for selfish ends.

It is also a film, about film making.

Most of the action is shot inside the confined restrictions of Mr Badii’s symbolically important car, a cramped space that does not allow for much innovation. Kiarostami has given interviews where he indicated this was his take on the state of the Iranian film industry, where films can only be made in conjunction with government censors, to the detriment of creativity. The ending ties into this theme as well; a highly unusual and unexpected change in perspective (which I won’t reveal), that reframes the whole narrative in a metaphoric context. The audience, in a way, becomes part of the film making; I wasn’t much taken with this jarring twist at first, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

And I mean, the film still works as a MOVIE (albeit a measured one).

The director has chosen his locations well; the golden hued countryside is luminous to look at, and the occasional scenes shot in clamourous construction sites, enormous machines and artifical storms of dust, have an alien quality that underlines the strangeness of the modern world. Apart from the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi, giving a soulful performance, the remainder of the cast are non professionals, and their stilted and unvarnished performances are engaging, and also help blur the line between fiction and reality, that this film is determined to obliterate.

A rich and subtle film, and a lot to think about.

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