A Bad Taste
Acclaimed Iranian Film's Virtues Are Lost in the Translation
The 1997 winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Taste of Cherry, from veteran Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami, finally arrives in Baltimore, trailing the sort of praise any filmmaker would kill for. The high-art movie mag Film Comment called it "a masterpiece . . . harrowingly beautiful." Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that Kiarostami's work is "simultaneously epic and precisely minuscule." With that sort of trumpet blowing from the muck-a-mucks, what's a humble alternative-weekly film critic have to say?
Just this: I don't get it. I mean, I don't get it at all. I'm sure being a filmmaker in Iran is a hard gig--who would want their scripts to be reviewed for approval by religious zealots?--but if this movie is "harrowingly beautiful," then the ESPN Zone is Baltimore dining at its finest. Kiarostami obviously had a budget of about 200 bucks to work with, but a small budget is no excuse for technical incompetence, which, unless there is something dreadfully wrong with the print shipped to the Orpheum Cinema, Taste of Cherry has in abundance.
One example will suffice. Much of the action takes place inside of the four-wheel-drive vehicle of the main character, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), who is spending the day driving around the outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will help him in his suicide effort. (More specifically, he's willing to pay for someone to check on him after he's swallowed sleeping pills and crawled in a hole in the ground. If he's alive, the helper will rescue him. If he's dead, the helper will throw dirt on the corpse.) Picking up a succession of men, Mr. Badii reveals his plans to them.
It's well-nigh impossible for the viewer to keep up with what's being said, because the blinding white light outside of the car windows blows out about half of the film's subtitles. By the time half of this 95-minute film has unspooled, I'd developed a powerful headache from squinting. Yes, the film was shot in Farsi, and the subtitles may have been added only when Taste of Cherry secured international distribution, but you would think Kiarostami (who not only wrote and directed the film but also edited it) would have asked himself, Hey, is anybody going to be able to read this sucker?
Technical problems aside, the film's story is so underdeveloped that it's difficult to empathize with Mr. Badii. By Iranian standards, he seems very well-off. And when one character asks him why he wants to kill himself, Badii responds with mumbo jumbo about how it's too painful and difficult to explain, conveniently excusing the director from the hard work of filling in back story. The passengers Badii picks up as he drives around are meant to be a cross section of contemporary Iranian society. There's a soldier from Kurdistan, an Afghan seminarian, and a Turkish taxidermist, all of whom try, in their own ways, do dissuade Badii from doing the deed. It's weirdly reminiscent of those World War II movies about a platoon that included a redneck, a Jew, an Italian, and a WASP aristocrat; Kiarostami is obviously saying contemporary Iran is an ethnic mosaic and that, somehow, we're all in this together. That might be a socially relevant, even daring statement in Iran, but it's not much to hang a movie on.
The sneaking suspicion here is that Taste of Cherry got applauded precisely because its maker has hung in there and made films in Iran for the past 28 years. That sort of doggedness is to be admired. And it would certainly be interesting to know what sort of hell Kiarostami endured during the heyday of Khomeini. But the honors and praise this film has received are out of proportion to its achievements. If you wanted to be high-minded, you would say that acclaiming Taste of Cherry was an attempt by Western intellectuals to signal the moderating Iranian government to keep up the good work. If you want to be skeptical, you would say that Western film intellectuals think it's so darned cute that Iranians make movies that any work should be praised, even if it would be damned as amateurish and simpleminded if made by an American.