A middle-aged and middle class man drives through the streets of Tehran, searching for someone who might assist him. He turns away the eager men who crowd his window, in hopes of being hired for day labor. It's not clear what he wants, and not clear he knows exactly what he's looking for, and when he finally picks up a young man in a military uniform, the young man's growing apprehension mirrors our own. What kind of job demands such secrecy? Of course, if you've read the back of the dvd case, you know what he wants is for someone to assist him with suicide. More precisely, he wants someone to come and bury him when the job has been done. A paradox of the film is that in order to die alone, to leave behind no trace, this man requires an assistant. He cannot end his life alone. What is intriguing about the opening scene is that it sets up the uneasy soldier as a kind of surrogate for the audience, who will witness and assess this man's decision to end his life. It raises questions for us, not only about the significance of life and what considerations might lead one to end it, but also about what it means to be a witness, what it means to observe a man's life, questions that will be intensified as the story progresses.
The film is deceptively simple, following the man as he attempts to convince someone, but not just anyone, to perform this final act, to cover him with dirt when he is gone. It turns out, upon reflection, to have been structured with a great deal of precision, with two major parts divided by a transition during which the man stops to observe the workings of a nearby gravel site. The digging of the earth, the anonymous machines hauling gravel and soil, all serve as subtle reminders of the burial contemplated by the man. There is a powerful moment, as the man looks over the edge of a pit where dirt falls, and it seems as though his shadow is shrouded by the soil and silt. He sits as the mounting dust obscures him from view, and a man comes and calls to him, in a manner that anticipates what he asks his prospective helpers to do, to call his name and be sure he is dead before burying him. The three men he solicits as assistants are at different stages in their lives, and may suggest different generations and walks of life in Iran - they also seem to represent three very different perspectives on the theme of the film, on the question whether and why life should be lived at all costs: the perspective of the youth and of the military establishment, where law is decisive; the perspective of religion from a cleric in training, where morality and faith are called upon, and judgment is passed; and the perspective of a wise and aging taxidermist, who does not judge but only asks that the man stop and consider whether there is anything he values and could live for. In his case, when he had himself contemplated his own end, it had been "the taste of cherries" that awakened him to feel and care again.
The final scene is both enigmatic and rich, and recalls Kiarostami's deliberate tendency in films such as Close-Up to withdraw from key moments and allow viewers to fill in the gaps, allowing the enigma to intensify the imaginative response. The exuberant and upbeat ending, in contrast with the style and feel of the film to that point, also points back to the beginning, opening space for reflection on the cinematic techniques and themes of the film as a whole, and manages to introduce new concerns such as the nature of cinema, of realism and fiction. I have seen this film many times and see more each time. Rather than make it seem more complicated, it gets simpler, more direct, with each new insight. This is one of the great works of cinema, by one of the most intriguing of living filmmakers. Highly recommended.
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About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen (nateandersen)
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for this contemplative film about a Muslim, Mr. Badi (Homayon Ershadi), who drives around the barren hills outside Tehran, flagging down passersby and offering good money for a simple job that he's hesitant to explain. He's planning his suicide and seeks someone to perform something of a symbolic eulogy. Most of his subjects refuse (personal morality aside, suicide is forbidden to Muslims), but he finds an elderly taxidermist (Abdolrahman Bagheri) who agrees only because he needs the money for an ill child. Yet the old man gently pleads with him to choose life, to embrace the joys of earthly existence, to remember the taste of cherries. Though initially greeted with critical acclaim,A Taste of Cherryreceived poor distribution in the U.S. The meandering, deliberately paced drama is composed of long conversations and long silences, and the camera is locked in the car for entire sequences, staring at the protagonists in still closeups with the dusty landscape rolling past the windows of the Land Rover in the background. Kiarostami's film is not for everyone, but if you can embrace the quiet power and grace of his deceptively simple style, the film becomes a remarkably rich celebration of human dignity and resilience. By the astonishing conclusion we can see past Badi's age-etched face to the soul peering out from behind his sad eyes.--Sean Axmaker