This review contains minor plot spoilers.
Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives around Tehran. He is intent on killing himself, and during the course of the day tries to persuade strangers to bury his body. First, a young soldier (Ali Moradi) takes fright and runs off. Secondly, a young theology student (Hossein Noori) tries to argue him out of suicide on the grounds that it is a deadly sin. Finally, an elderly taxidermist (Abdolhossein Bagheri) who works at the city’s Natural History Museum, agrees to Badii’s wishes, but tries to persuade him of the preciousness of life…
Although Abbas Kiarostami has been making films since the late 70s, it has only been since the early nineties, with Close-Up> and the trilogy set in the village of Koker (Where Is My Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On…, Through the Olive Trees) that he came to the attention of filmgoers outside his native Iran. Taste of Cherry shared the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival (with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel). Of his films, Close-Up is the most immediately engaging and probably the best place to start for newcomers to his work. However, Taste of Cherry is as far as I know the first of his films on DVD and, until Artificial Eye’s more recent edition of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards, the only representative of the Iranian New Wave on disc.
Kiarostami’s style is so self-effacing that you could almost mistake it for no style at all. His camerawork is scrupulously realistic, almost documentary-like, and he tells often very simple stories. (You can see why, as Kiarostami says in the interview on this DVD, the Italian neo-realist classics of the 40s, such as Bicycle Thieves, were widely admired among Iranian cineastes.) However, Kiarostami is well aware of avant-garde procedures. Close-Up and the trilogy (which has a Chinese-box-like structure) deliberately blur the lines between “reality” and “fiction”. Taste of Cherry doesn’t do this, but it does leave out certain information other films might have told us. We don’t find out why Badii wants to kill himself. The ending is left open: a long fade to black that cuts abruptly to video footage of Kiarostami and his crew at work, his leading actor standing to one side smoking a cigarette.
The bulk of the film consists of dialogues in the car between Badii and his three passengers in turn. Kiarostami emphasises Badii’s isolation by never keeping him in the same shot as the person he is talking to. You do have to accustom yourself to the pacing, which is measured, but if you can do this the film is very rewarding. As the taxidermist tells Badii how he can give up the pleasures of life and its preciousness (in a speech which gives the film its title), somehow Taste of Cherry delivers an epiphany to the viewer and becomes a deeply moving experience.
In my review of Blackboards, I criticise Artificial Eye’s transfer, which looks like it was sourced from a cinema print. For Taste of Cherry, Criterion have sourced their transfer from a 35mm interpositive, and the result – non-anamorphic NTSC notwithstanding – is far superior. It positively glows – the film is dominated by the orange tones of the landscape surrounding Tehran – and if there was a flaw, I missed it. Considering that the ratio is 1.66:1, it’s dubious than anamorphic enhancement would be any improvement. As for the sound, it’s the original mono (stereo soundtracks didn't arrive in Iran until after this film was made), and a thoroughly professional job it is too, particularly as the dialogue is all-important. The subtitles are optional, but unless you speak Farsi that won’t be an issue; they are always clear and easy to read. There are fourteen chapter stops.
This isn’t the most extras-heavy Criterion DVD. The theatrical trailer (also in 1.66:1 and running 1:15) is par for the course for many foreign-language films: shot clips from the film overlaid with music and interspersed with quotes from critics. No dialogue, of course, in case subtitles put the viewer off! The filmography is a single-page text listing of titles, nothing more elaborate than that.
The most substantial extra is an interview with Kiarostami filmed (in full-frame video) by Dr Jamsheed Akrami, Professor of Communications at William Paterson University. It’s extracted from Akrami’s documentary about Iranian cinema, Friendly Persuasion. The interview is divided into five sections: “On censorship”, “Reception in the West”, “Directorial Style”, “On Tarantino” and “Children”, totalling 18:39. Regarding censorship, Kiarostami suggests that it’s more a system that filmmakers have to work within and around, and basically no different to those in the West. On the other hand, the Iranian authorities are prepared to finance films as long as they obey certain cultural mores: women must be seen wearing headscarves, for example, and there are strict rules about touching. Apart from a brief excursion into English when talking about Tarantino (a great admirer of Kiarostami’s work), the interview is conducted in Farsi, with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately, you can’t play the interview from beginning to end; you have to select each section in turn. The booklet contains a short essay by Godfrey Cheshire.
Taste of Cherry is a key film in the still-continuing and very vibrant Iranian New Wave, not to mention in the career of one of the leading names in 90s world cinema. Let’s hope more of Kiarostami’s work makes its way onto DVD; in the meantime, this Criterion disc will do very nicely.
This review contains minor plot spoilers.