Provost's Film Series
March 19, 2004
Kiarostami and the Critics
Kiarostami and the Critics
For the last fifteen years the work of Abbas Kiarostami has been among the most highly acclaimed by international critics. A poll conducted by Canada's Cinematheque Ontario listed four of Kiarostami's films among the top six films produced during the 1990s. That appraisal may bewilder many American viewers, who often find the Iranian director's films slow-moving, even aimless. As critic Liam Lacey writes, Kiarostami "is, arguably, the most important film director alive, though the appraisal is not universal. For a lot of North American moviegoers, his films are too filled with little struggles of unknown people to compete with Titanic or Terminator. A reasonable question is: What's so great about Kiarostami, a director who is obviously not the flashiest, wide-ranging or innovative creator of cinema?" What, indeed, are the intellectual and artistic features that have brought Kiarostami such deep respect?
Italian Influences and Open Endings
To begin with, Kiarostami has been called the "last international film director to grow up under the influence of Italian neorealism," a style from the 1940s and 50s that produced such classics as The Bicycle Thief. That influence is apparent in Kiarostami's use of nonactors, his avoidance of mood-setting music, his interest in children, and his preference for open endings. In essence, Kiarostami wants us to read between the lines. As he explains, an open-ended narrative is central to his philosophy: "Originally I thought the lights went out in a movie theatre so that we could see images on the screen better. Then I looked a little closer and saw that there was a much more important reason: the darkness allowed the members of the audience to isolate themselves from one other . . . when we reveal a film's world to the members of an audience, they each learn to create their own world from the wealth of their own experience. As a filmmaker, I rely on this creative intervention for, otherwise, the film and the audience will die together. Faultless stories that work perfectly have one major defect: they work too well to allow the audience to intervene. It is a fact that films without a story are not very popular with audiences, yet a story also requires gaps, empty spaces like a crossword puzzle, voids that it is up to the audience to fill in."
Filmmaker and Audience
Part of the Kiarostami's moral purpose is to locate both the filmmaker and the audience within the story. In The Wind Will Carry Us the protagonist—the one professional actor in the film—represents both the director and his audience. We follow an engineer and film crew from Teheran who have traveled nearly 500 miles to Siah Dareh, a remote, agricultural Kurdish village at the foot of the mountains. Although they tell the residents that they are interested in finding "buried treasure," they have come to town with the secret intent to film a unique local mourning ceremony. This ceremony will follow the anticipated death of a 100-year-old woman from the village, an occasion when the women mourners will ritually scar their faces. In an unusually self-reflective way, the film raises questions about whether the filmmaker should intrude into the village life and its moral contours. Is taking or viewing such pictures about local ways somehow illicit? A rich understanding of the village requires more than snapshots about village novelties. The film also refuses to shape the story of the village to fit the audience's expectations in terms of plot, resolution and camera access. Throughout the story the camera keeps its distance from the characters, avoiding the usual close-ups and the crisp editing of most mainstream films, and sustaining its focus on a single scene for what often seems a disorienting length of time. The audience is asked to gaze longer at scenes, and to be far more patient with the slowly moving action, than they are accustomed to. In part, Kiarostami's film is undercutting, or even satirizing, the pace and condescension of a modern, technologically oriented intelligentsia (notice the recurrent joke about cell phones). Some key persons—including the old woman and the engineer's companions—never appear on screen. The film opens with the protagonist declaring "we're heading nowhere . . . going nowhere"—and the filmmaker may be daring the audience to leap to that conclusion as well. The challenge of the film is, in large measure, the question of whether the prolonged gaze of the camera—and the rural pace of the tale—reward us with a richer understanding of life than otherwise.
The vibrant cinematography also invites the audience to contemplate nature afresh. The film plays—mysteriously and almost comically at times—with symbols, such as a human bone and a turtle. Kiarostami is not unaware that his scenes of a gravedigger will tease the audience with comparisons to Hamlet. While the engineer sustains the illusion of looking for buried treasure, he must encounter something else buried here: Is it beauty, poetry, fear or ignorance? One of the film's most remarkable scenes involves the engineer's encounter with a young girl and the recitation of a poem by Furugh Farrokhzad, an Iranian feminist disoriented by the "eternal twilight" that followed the rise of the Shah of Iran. In her poem "The Wind Will Carry Us," Farrokhzad describes a "terror of desolation" and an "addiction to my own hopelessness." The "crowds, like mourners," she writes, "await to break in the rain." She appeals to her lover to seize her hands, and caress her lips, for "the wind will carry us with it." Is this escapism? Or hope? Subtle, impressionist and understated, Kiarostami's film invokes this language of heartache and social change and leaves us to reach our own conclusions about its political implications. And in its final ten minutes, the film offers a remarkable collage of images and dialogue that both reinforce and challenge Islamic ideas about nature, life and paradise. As we watch the wind stir the grass in beautiful ways, we are prompted to wonder if this is the height of beauty—or if the wind will carry us somewhere further after death.
With all of his European influence, Kiarostami's work is part of a renaissance of Iranian film that followed the 1979 Islamic revolution against the Shah. Many of the Iranian filmmakers from the 1980s endorsed an Islamic worldview, and they sought to shed the commercial style and materialistic sheen often associated with Western culture. By contrast, they portrayed the poverty of village life and expressed a new hope in rural spirituality. As the first phase of enthusiasm after the 1979 revolution gave way to internal dissent within the Islamic world, several of the leading Iranian filmmakers distanced themselves from religious fundamentalism, but they continued to make subtle and austere films. Ironically, even as the government of Iran was attempting to purge the nation of western influences and to restore a vision of pre-modern Islamic culture, Iranian filmmakers began to win some of the highest praise from the West's most progressive film critics for producing "the most ethical of the world's cinema." The marvel is that such work has flourished in a non-democratic nation known for censorship.