(This review was originally meant to be published last June. As you can see I... didn't get to finish what I'd planned, tin this case a three-part review of three Kiarostami movies. I only watched Taste of Cherry following the late director's passing. So... here's the review):
To look at Taste of Cherry properly, in my mind, is to look at precisely the manner that he is going about planning to commit suicide. The question that has to be asked is: why does he need help? More than about who he is or why he is doing it - clearly these are questions that Kiarostami isn't interested in (I think that his job in casting Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badhii was almost enough, to find someone with intense sadness but also a great intelligence in his eyes, and those who notice it may see at the least that, whether he's rational or not, he's thought this through) - I think the question comes down to human connectivity. In this story he means to take a lot of sleeping pills and go at night into a hole in the ground he's dug by a tree out in the wastelands near Tehran. But there's a catch: he has to find someone who, at dawn, will come and say his name. If Badhii responds, he'll need to pull him out of the hole. If there's no response, 20 shovels of dirt on his head.
In his way, just by asking for people to help him it's his way of reaching out. One of the cliches (but a cliche is what it is because it's many times true) with suicidal people is that they will say they will or want to kill themselves because they want attention. However this isn't some stereotypical teenager or someone with easy to see anxiety issues... but then how many people out there CAN we see having this? Maybe Mr. Badhii has no other reason except the one that many people who kill themselves get into: severe, crippling depression. He is told by one of the three passengers he picks up in the film, a Seminarian (aka a priest of a sort) that the Koran forbids suicide since God gives man a body that he must not damage. But what if the mind is already damaged?
One of the handful of negative reviews on this Golden Palm winner from 1997 was by Roger Ebert. He was much harsher than I could ever be on the film, since I think it's rather challenging and intelligent in its philosophical aims and its "slowness" works as part of a character unable to really cope with the sense that 'there's no other choice and this HAS to be this way' sense of ending a life (maybe not as strong as Melancholia, but then few films are). Yet he made a curious point that I agree with, which is that we don't know anything about this man and so there's no port into sympathy for him. I think I get both sides of how people might approach that argument: too often a movie will overload a movie character with reasons to do this or that or the other. Kiarostami means to almost make this experimental in approach (about 75% of the film is shot from inside a car - what this means aesthetically in the context of the film I'm still sure I don't know, on a first viewing anyway), but also that maybe too many reasons would make things too easy or too country specific.
In other words, by having it so that Mr. Badhii's conflict is so internalized that it becomes more about his quest to get this ONE thing done that makes his journey interesting - who needs reasons when you simply have a man on screen who can communicate so much through his eyes (I must stress that the performance from Ershadi may be the strongest thing about the film, like I wish he had been recognized at Cannes along with or even instead of Kiarostami)? What's also impressive about the film, what makes Taste of Cherry impactful, are a) those interactions Badhii has with these three people (the young soldier who is clearly uncomfortable from almost the start of the pick-up and then wants to just get out and have nothing to do with him, the Semanarist, and then the older gentleman who agrees to what Badhii asks but tries to go on and talks the most of anyone about why suicide isn't such a good idea based on, you know, some little thing may make you realize life is worth living).
And B) those little moments where Badhii doesn't have someone in his car, and he stops off at a construction site to just sit there amid all of the "earth" and rubble around him (he almost looks like he's in tears, as this comes after the second passenger rejected his request, though it's almost, cinematically speaking, in a metaphysical sense of visual language, that things are crashing down upon and all around him), or when he simply looks out at people as they go about their day, soldiers marching and chanting along, the children playing, and a young woman who asks him to take a picture of her. I think a good filmmaker finds those little moments and attempts to build some context around the story, and Kiarostami does that: Badhii may have it set in his mind to do this, but how does one completely disregard... well, LIFE, all around him, the world continuing to live and thrive and people doing things like, at one point, getting his car out from under a ditch that he drives in to by a cliff?
So much of the story is rich - the execution, yes, is a little slow at points, by this I should say shots linger as the characters improvise their lines (it didn't feel that way watching it, but finding out after the fact there was no full script makes it both remarkable and more sense why it sounds the way it all does) - that it's extremely disappointing that the ending putters out. It may be one of those things I *should* get and just completely flew over my head what meaning it was. I won't say what happens except to say that it feels like the film is reaching some logical conclusion, or perhaps a revelation, and what we get feels like a non-ending, or, frankly a cop-out. DID Kiarostami know what ending he wanted and threw it out to do something "fresh", or did he not get what he wanted and decided to just say 'eff it' and forget what was happening in the film?
What's so frustrating is that for 90% of the film Kiarostami tells a story in a specific way, that can't be mistaken for any other style or approach, and then in that last 10% (and also things start to slow down to a crawl, which is fine, but it feels like it's leading up to SOMETHING) it becomes, well, *meta* or taking the experimental to a place that is distancing for the audience. But more than anything I just didn't get it, and I usually feel I can get most weird and esoteric decisions. And I'm sure some smarter film goer than I will explain what the end means and make me feel all foolish for not getting it, but that makes me feel WORSE about it, not better. And at the end of the day so much of Taste of Cherry is a provocative, daring, surprising film that I can't not recommend it to audiences looking for a fiercely intelligent film by someone looking to break out of the box of typical narrative films.
If only it stuck to its, I don't know, narrative!