If you managed to catch any of the superb Cinema Iran season on Channel 4 in the UK recently, then you’ll know that Iranian cinema has long had one of the most vital and progressive approaches to filmmaking in the world, avoiding the trappings of conventional Hollywood-style storytelling in favour of exploring deeply relevant concerns about modern life, our relationships with nature and the people around us and coping with the conflicts between our spiritual selves and the need to adapt and exist in a world of changing values. Kiarostami is to the forefront of Iranian filmmakers, which places him as one of the most important directors working in modern cinema. A Taste of Cherry, the film which won Kiarostami the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1997, is one of his most vital statements and one of the greatest works of cinematic art.
A man (Homayon Ershadi) is driving a car through the outskirts of Tehran, looking for someone, anyone to do a little job for him – yet he drives past lines of labourers looking for a job. A couple of young men who he approaches in the car are suspicious and refuse to get in the car, but eventually the man meets a young Kurdish soldier, recently conscripted and on his way to the army barracks. The man introduces himself as Mr Badii and tells him that the job will earn him a lot of money and won’t keep him from getting back to the barracks on time. He takes him to an outlying cement works and presents the uneasy soldier with a bizarre proposition that the nervous young man finds hard to comprehend.
In A Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami refines a style and approach to filmmaking that further hides the hand of the director and minimises any overt influence over the situation or performance. For long stretches, the film consists of little more than two-shot takes of the driver of the car and his passengers – a situation that Kiarostami would take even further in Ten (2003), leaving a static camera on its own in a car to record the conversations between driver and passenger. What is surprising about this effect is just how gripping Kiarostami can make such a situation by presenting the viewer with no visual clues or cues other than what we can see in the actors' faces and read in their voices. There are no clever camera angles or forced dramatic pauses or ellipses to underline or force the viewer in any direction. And although nothing actually happens that can be easily understood for the first half of the film until Badii reveals his terrible task, the viewer couldn’t be more involved in the powerful sense of suspense that has been created.
But by using such techniques, Kiarostami isn’t striving for some Dogme-style purism, avant-garde effect, nor even strictly adhering to any rule-book about filmmaking, self-imposed or otherwise. Rules are made to be broken for Kiarostami, and the director will use whatever technique is most effective for the scene in question in order to approach reality as closely as possible, using a static camera and minimal dialogue for long stretches, but also later using more conventional cinematic techniques like foreshadowing and use of the environment to express interior conflicts and emotions. The winding, dusty, barren paths the man seems doomed to endlessly wander (like the boy in Where Is The Friend’s House?) are contrasted with the sudden bursts of colour in the landscape when the museum worker takes him on a new and different path. The director’s technique, the actors’ performances and use of locations are therefore entirely apposite, all melding together to support the underlying idea and mood and supporting the contradiction between the impersonal nature in which Badii wants his request carried out and the fact that he needs it not to be carried out in complete anonymity. The dead, dusty landscape of the environment underlines this, contrasting the nature of what Badii wishes the men to do with the mechanical way it is carried out by the trucks carrying quarry rubble. The director’s technique further bears this out in the impersonal straight in-the-car fixed camera work, set against his direct intervention at the end of the film.
I’ve kept my description of the film to a brief outline, although knowledge of the plot isn’t really going to spoil a film like this too much. Artificial Eye however are not as vague in their description of the film on the back cover, so if you haven’t seen Taste of Cherry before you might not want to read the synopsis provided there as it basically gives you the plot of the whole film. Artificial Eye have ported across the MK2 DVD release of the film, packaging it with a second disc 10 on Ten. The disc is encoded for Region 2. Unlike the Criterion release of the film (reviewed here by Gary Couzens), the Artificial Eye release is anamorphic and has more substantial extra features.
Taste of Cherry was shot on 35mm, before the director’s definitive move to digital cameras on Ten, but as the majority of the film is shot in the interior of a car, there are limitations to how good it can look. How good it looks aesthetically however is less of a concern to Kiarostami than how effective it is in capturing reality and here it succeeds well. The image is relatively clear, though rather soft. Cross colouration is evident which suggests that the DVD transfer comes from a video source. Blacks are often flat and show little detail. Occasional white dust spots are visible and one or two larger blemishes. Overall the film looks very well, capturing the varying tone of the film and the landscapes very well. As previously noted, the 1.66:1 transfer is anamorphic, unlike the Criterion.
There are few problems with the soundtrack which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. There is a low level of background hiss audible, but the dialogue is clear and warmly toned.
English subtitles are provided and are optional.
Disc one extra features are limited to a French Trailer (0:49), which sets the tone and gives nothing away, and a short Abbas Kiarostami Biography which also includes a detailed filmography. The main extra feature, and it is a substantial one, is Kiarostami’s 10 on Ten. Driving around the locations of Taste of Cherry Kiarostami films himself in his car delivering a fascinating examination of his theories on filmmaking and his own techniques and approaches to cinema through ten lessons. This is a complete masterclass for students who are interested in filmmaking or anyone interested in the director’s work. The film is not translated, but voiced-over in English. I’m not sure why this approach was taken, but it works ok.
A review of Taste of Cherry doesn’t need to be as necessarily vague as this one, but a mere recounting of the plot or even an examination of the themes and techniques won’t necessarily convey what the film is about or how it works. It is certainly a film that it is best going into with an open mind and being prepared for anything that appears on the screen – even if on the surface it seems to be very little. There is so much more to be gained from a Kiarostami film by just letting it exert its effect over you personally and drawing your own conclusions. Artificial Eye have presented this amazing film well, releasing it as a two-disc set that includes Kiarostami’s masterclass 10 on Ten, which is about as definitive a commentary on the director’s work as you could wish for.