Taste of Cherry (1997)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Safar Ali Moradi
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: The Beautiful Last Day of a Broken Man
Abbas Kiarostami is a director many will have trouble with. His approach to cinema is unlike any of the directors before or after him. Some believe this to be a negative thing, such as Roger Ebert, who has had problems with all the Kiarostami films he’s reviewed. But there are also people who praise the director, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Michael Haneke. Godard famously said that cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami. A rather bold statement, perhaps, but one must admit that Kiarostami does add a certain flair and new flavour to cinema. His films are special, and while movies like Taste of Cherry can be likened as a homage to films such as The Fire Within by Malle and Ikiru by Kurosawa, there is something so different and new here, an interesting level of unanticipated minimalism that feels so fresh and bold and honest.
Taste of Cherry has a deceptively simple plot, but with the tremendous power of its lead performance combined with Kiarostami’s intriguing direction methods, we are given a new, interesting twist on the age-old story of a dying man and his final wishes.
As it opens, we see Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, in one of the greatest performances of foreign cinema), an Iranian man driving around in his Range Rover. He occasionally stops and asks a stranger to help him. He says he can offer them money – a lot. It is unclear exactly what job he wants done, but in time it is revealed: he plans to climb into a hole he has dug, swallow many sleeping pills, and hopefully die. What he requires from another person is to come back the next morning and see if he is alive. If he is not, the person is to throw in twenty shovelfuls of earth to bury him. About 80% of this 95 minute film sees him driving around talking to people, trying to recruit them for this small favour.
This is a film that many people will find slow. Ebert called it “excruciatingly boring.” I respect him but there was not a second of this film I found boring. Every shot has a point, and even when it is just Badii driving around silently, we can see in his face gentle and subtle hints of his despair, well masked by a deceptively calm facade, especially in the latter half of the film.
Kiarostami’s style is very minimalist. He keeps things simple; much of the film takes place in the car, and both the driver and passenger are almost never framed in the same shot. This is to keep them separated, and make it easier to accept the characters are gone when they leave, and to make the driver and passenger feel distanced from each other; specifically to make the passenger feel distanced from Badii, who only has one objective, and discards and ignores emotion or friendship in favour of it. He attempts to make a friend in each passenger he picks up, but it is for no other reason than to achieve his goal. It is only when he meets the taxidermist that he is reminded of reasons to live, and it is only with this man that he forms a solid friendship; the other two who drive with him either don’t want to be in the car or don’t understand Badii.
Despite the lack of emotional connection between Badii and the first two passengers, there are some genuinely poignant moments in the film, but most of them occur when Badii is alone. Take for example the one scene where he parks his car at a construction site and exits it. He perches down in the middle of the site, and just simply sits there. For a long while. A beautiful thing happens in this pivotal moment; the camera’s view of Badii becomes clouded by dust – a thick air of dust and sand. We can vaguely see his figure, and there is a brief implication that he might be weeping. Could he be? I find it clever that Kiarostami chose to cloud the camera’s view of him for this one all-important moment of silent revelation.
But perhaps the most famous scene in the film is its startling ending, or more appropriately, its epilogue. Decidedly ambiguous and disturbingly senseless, it appears completely out of nowhere and is the one part of the movie that is almost guaranteed to annoy all who see it. But more on that later, I won’t ruin it here for people who haven’t seen it.
Despite the ending and all its annoying strangeness, I still see Taste of Cherry as a powerful, moving artwork; a revolutionary film for Iranian cinema, a fantastic experience and a beautiful look at one man’s despair.
How can Ebert call this film boring? Just because it takes some time showing a man drive around does not mean it’s too long or pointless. Kiarostami is presenting to us a film about what could be the last day in a man’s life. How could you rush such a thing? It would be criminal to cut quickly through a man’s final hours. Kiarostami’s use of scenes being presented languidly and almost in real time is exceptionally well-chosen, and completely involves us in the enigma of a man’s life and his well-disguised desperation.
!CAUTION! SPOILERS! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM THEN THE REVIEW ENDS HERE! DO NOT READ ON BEFORE SEEING THE FILM!
Now, as for the ending: as you’ll know it starts with Badii laying down in the hole, drifting off to sleep; perhaps to die, or perhaps just to sleep. Then we cut to some footage shot in noticeably poorer quality, showing soldiers walk down a road as a camera crew set up to film them. Then we see the actor who plays Badii, Homayoun Ershadi, walking towards Kiarostami. I think this moment represents Badii arriving in Heaven, which to him looks exactly like his home country of Iran, because Heaven is a place modeled on whatever the man’s favourite place is. Seeing Kiarostami tell the camera crew what to do, and control the soldiers, to me represents God. I think he’s implying that Kiarostami is the God of this film, and Badii has indeed died, and has arrived in Heaven, and is approaching God. The soldiers represent all the good men who have died fighting for their country, who have well earned their place in Heaven. This is what I believe the ending means; I could be wrong, but I’m very comfortable believing it’s the truth. I’m glad the movie cut as Badii was falling asleep. If it cut to the morning and he was dead, that wouldn’t be right. The whole film is from his perspective only, so therefore if he died in the hole that would be where the film would end because there’s nothing more for him to see. The only reason it continues is because it wants to show Badii’s arrival in Heaven. That’s my view on it.
What did you think of Taste of Cherry? If you haven’t seen it, then simply tell me what you think of it based on my review? Does it interest you? Do you want to see it? If you’ve seen the film and read on to my interpretation of the ending, then let me know what you think of that, too. Thanks for reading and commenting.