Taste of Cherry | Tree of Knowledge

Actor Homayoun Ershadi in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" (1997).

David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
“Taste of Cherry” (1997)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Judging by two of his films, “Certified Copy” and “Taste of Cherry” (1997), Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami might do his best thinking in a car. The storyline to the latter is simple. It works as parable and myth: A man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives around the hilly outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him. He picks up a young Kurd (Afshin Khorshid) who is training as a soldier in the Iranian army. First he offers the boy a ride to his barracks, asking him a range of questions about the country he comes from, why he’s in the army, what his family is like, if he’s shy, and ultimately if he’s interested in doing a job that will pay the equivalent of six months worth of salary. Badii is pressing, urgent to know more about his passenger. Initially, the audience is left to guess why. It feels like a homosexual pick-up. A guy cruising. But the consternation on the driver’s face keeps us from fully accepting that storyline. It must be something more. Badii eventually convinces the boy to go with him to the remote hills of an industrial site, snaking through a number of curvy hillside roads. He stops the car by a tree, to show the boy a hole in the ground, then explains he is going to be in that hole at 6 a.m. — and he may or may not be dead — and that the boy is to call out his name twice. If Badii responses, then the boy is to lend a hand and help him out of the hole. If he does not respond, Badii wants the boy to shovel 20 spades of dirt over his dead body and take a large sum of money he’ll leave in the back of his car. This is the mode of operation Badii also uses on four others, including a seminarian, after the boy runs away from the task. All but one declines. A seminarian cites his belief that suicide is against the laws of nature and god.

And so the story goes. Can Badii find a compassionate man to do him this strange favor in exchange for a large monetary reward? Ultimately, “Taste of Cherry” is a meditation on life, more than death. It’s about what we find precious and worth living for. Is burying a man who commits suicide an act of kindness or is it legitimizing his actions? Is a man’s body his own to do with as he pleases? Should we really feel bad about death, when it’s the end result of everyone’s life? Can one human being really feel another’s pain? Baddi tells the seminarian that a person can sympathize or show compassion but can never truly feel the pain of another. Much like in “Certified Copy” we’re treated to marvelous philosophical pondering in a car. The camera is nearly always focused on Badii while he’s driving. We see him in profile, the winding dirt roads and hills moving by. His nervous surveillance adds tension to the plot. We keep wondering where this dark ode will lead, as Badii seemingly drives in circles looking for someone to help him.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote something wonderful about Iranian cinema and it certainly applies to this film too: “… while Iranians continue to be among the most demonized people on the planet, Iranian cinema is becoming almost universally recognized as the most ethical, as well as the most humanist.” We’re never told why Badii wants to kill himself, but he says he’s unbearably pained. There might be one hint about this in the film. When Baddi tries to convince the reluctant solider to do the job, he says to him, “You’re like my son” — one of the few personal details we get to know about Baddi. We also can surmise he is well off, because he owns a car, dresses well, and has enough money to make this peculiar service worthwhile for someone. But all of that really doesn’t matter. What matters is the journey to understanding. This isn’t simply a story about dying. Badii is on a quest, searching for something (perhaps a peace) for unknown reasons.

Detractors of the film, like Roger Ebert, found “Taste of Cherry” to be boring, writing in his review, “Conversations are very long, elusive and enigmatic. Intentions are misunderstood. The car is seen driving for long periods in the wasteland, or parked overlooking desolation …” True enough. There are also plot problems. Why doesn’t Badii just kill himself without the need of an elaborate scheme or burial? But those are the wrong questions to ask. Some films don’t exist in a reality in the traditional sense. We don’t question fables or tales. We don’t ask why Iago hates Othello. Or if we do, there is no answer but — he just does. Ebert is also right to suggest that Kiarostami’s style is an affectation and the subject matter isn’t benefited by it. It’s a flawed film, but that doesn’t stop it from being touching.

The most moving scene in the film is when Badii picks up the man who finally decides to carry out his request. The man (Abdolrahman Bagheri) teaches taxidermy at the city’s history museum. He’s decidedly against what Badii wants to do, but will help him nonetheless. The taxidermist tells Badii a powerful story. He says he too once wanted to commit suicide. He tried to put a rope over a tree branch twice and it wouldn’t catch. He then climbed the tree to tie the rope. While he was tying the rope his hand touched the softness of a mulberry. He ate one, and changed his mind. He saw the sun, children ran by asking him to shake the tree so they too could eat mulberries. He brought some home to his wife. His life had inexplicably changed by the experience. The taxidermist says to Badii, “A mulberry saved my life.”

Interestingly, Kiarostami adds small touches that seem to mimic the circle of life — a scene of children running in a circle (a closed loop), a shot from Baddi’s point of view looking into the sky at an airplane leaving a long contrail (a straight line from one point to another like birth to death). The locale largely remains the same. We’re in the city at the beginning of the film, then it’s in the hills and eventually back to the city again. Throughout we’re treated to stunningly rich and earthy sound textures, that are there to give the feeling of life’s rich pageantry. The rustle of gravel under car tires, the chirping of birds and the chatter of field workers. There are only a few static shots with slow dissolves, and they come closer to the end of the film. One is of the dawn, the other clouds covering the moon. One of the more subtle features of this film is the way Kiarostami shows human connectivity as a source of life. There are four scenes showing unified group activity: Children running in a circle in a schoolyard, a group of workers pitch in to push Badii’s car out of a rut, a group of soldiers in march together in training (like a flashback to Badii’s fond memories of his own soldiering), and lastly the final scene.

The last sequence is one of the most talked about of the film. When the movie seems to be at its conclusion, Kiarostami fades to black. But then a piece of documentary footage appears. It’s of the director himself, with the lead actor, creating the very film we’ve been watching. It’s a film within a film. Why is it there? What does it mean? If there’s an answer it exists somewhere between what differentiates reality from fiction — a topic that also arises in “Certified Copy”. While watching the film the audience must wonder if Badii will die or not. But Kiarostami ends his tale in reality, or at least a captured reality. We’re watching what we think is fiction, only to be redirected back to reality. Things aren’t as we imagined them to be. Life isn’t always what we image it to be, and perhaps, neither is death.

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