Friday, July 24, 2020

Taste Of Cherry

TASTE OF CHERRY (Kiarostami, 1997)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 21, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) spends the bulk of Abbas Kiarostami's “Taste Of Cherry” (1997) circling the dusty roads of suburban Tehran, offering rides to a series of men. Is he out cruising? One rough-edged worker thinks so, and threatens to punch Badii in the face, but as our protagonist interrogates each man – a soldier, a security guard, a seminary student, a taxidermist – it becomes increasingly clear (or perhaps slightly less opaque, as Kiarostami is in no hurry to show his cards) that he has a different, though equally primal, goal in mind.

Badii probes relentlessly to ferret out each man's job situation, and once he learns that each is in financial need, he offers a substantial payment if they will help him with a job. That's predatory behavior by any standard, especially from a (presumably) wealthy city man seeking out working-class marks, but once Badii finally reveals the nature of this mysterious job, and his pressing, existential need, viewers may forgive him. Your first viewing of the film will be different whether you know this “twist” or not, so consider this a spoiler warning. Proceed at your own risk.

Badii intends this very evening to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills and lie down in a hillside grave he has already dug for himself. He wants someone to come by in the morning and call out his name; if he doesn't respond, that person must bury him and then can take the money in his car as reward for a good deed. He dismisses it as “only twenty shovelfuls of dirt” but it's not hard to understand why each of his new acquaintances is shaken by the request, and it requires multiple attempts before he finds a reluctant taker.

As shocking as the premise is, especially in an Islamic Republic where suicide is complete taboo, Kiarostami makes a bolder decision by refusing to explain his desperate protagonist's motivations. “Taste Of Cherry” is one of the most powerful ripostes to literal-minded viewers who constantly cry out for more background information, demanding that filmmakers shine a floodlight on their characters' darkest, most private spaces so that everyone can clearly see into every cobwebbed corner.

Kiarostami is a more mature and empathetic storyteller than that and it's difficult not to hear him speaking directly to the audience when Badii responds to one man's request for an explanation, “How come? It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it.” There's your Masterclass in screenwriting right there. Ershadi was a non-professional actor at the time, but his sad, piercing eyes and the finely worn lines of his fifty-ish face convey a depth of insight that no flashback or exposition could possibly match. To explain would eradicate the mystery and, anyway, perhaps he doesn't know why. Or maybe there's no why at all. Does it change how much you care?

Few directors were better than Kiarostami at filming extended driving sequences. Badii's car kicks up billowing dust clouds at a hardscrabble construction site and winds along sinuous hillside roads, perhaps the same paths already traveled on foot by the unforgettable young hero of “Where Is The Friend's House?” (1987). One of Badii's passengers convinces him to take a scenic detour, possibly signaling a turn in the story itself as nature's beauty forcefully asserts its presence. Yet we have to squint closely to detect any sign that Badii is wavering, that he has found anything new to connect to.

Will he or won't he? That might not even be the right question to ask. The film's focused narrative seems locked into a binary resolution, but Kiarostami's ending insists that cinema encompasses far greater worlds than mere narrative. The ending, which I will leave unspoiled here, drove some critics batty (the later, great Roger Ebert detested it, but found little value in the rest of the movie either) while others found it sublime. More than twenty years later, it remains a fertile subject for debate, which I suppose is a defining element of much of Kiarostami's open-ended, reflexive, and deeply sensitive art. 

Criterion released “Taste of Cherry” on DVD way back in 1999 with an SD transfer that seemed strong enough at the time, but which pales in comparison to this 4K digital restoration which is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The image resolution is sharp throughout and the color palette looks subdued and naturalistic – lots of earth tones from its locations. I've never had the chance to see this either on film or in high-def, so this 1080p transfer was a genuine pleasure to watch. I can't imagine the movie has ever looked any better.

The linear PCM mono sound track is sharp and spare, mostly dialogue and naturalistic location sounds. Optional English subtitles support the Persian dialogue.

The 1999 DVD release offered only one notable feature, a interview of Kiarostami (18 min.) by film scholar Jamsheed Akrami, and that has been included on this new Blu-ray.

Criterion has also added some new features for this release, starting with “Project” (1997, 39 min.), a “sketch” film which shows Kiarostami preparing for the full shoot. In most of the film's conversations that take place in the car, Kiarostami was actually sitting in the other seat directing his actors, something he seamlessly hides in the final cut, so it's enlightening to see him “show his work” here.

Film scholar Hamid Naficy (2019, 17 min.) provides a brief overview of Kiarostami's career preceding this film and then analyzes a few moments in the movie.

Criterion has also included a short episode (7 min.) from the Criterion Channel's “Observations on Film Art” series in which film scholar Kristin Thompson underscores a few basic themes and element common to much of Kiarostami's work.

We also get a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic A.S. Hamrah.

Final Thoughts:
Kiarostami had already been making films for over 20 years and was at the peak of his career, yet “Taste Of Cherry”, which won the Palme d'Or in 1997, is frequently highlighted as the film that enabled him to break out as a major force on the international festival circuit and, with it, much of the Iranian New Wave. Its victory at Cannes and its 1999 release by Criterion made it the first Kiarostami film that many Americans saw, providing both the opportunity to discover some of his previous masterpieces (such as the amazing “Close-Up”) and to keep up with the series of landmark works he released until his death in 2016.

With this Blu-ray upgrade of an early title, Criterion has provided a superb high-def transfer and an array of supplements that should please any Kiarostami fan.

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