This year we have seen the passing of three of cinema’s greatest contemporary artists: Jacques Rivette, Andrzej Wajda and Abbas Kiarostami. Rivette was a key critic for Cahiers du Cinema and one of the leading directors of the French Nouvelle Vague. Though lesser known than Breathless or The 400 Blows, his first film, Paris Belongs to Us, defined the early contours of the movement. Wajda’s movies embodied the traumas of postwar Poland and its struggles to escape the yoke of Soviet oppression. Though he is not as well known in the West. Kiarostami occupied a spot in Iranian art and society as significant as Rivette and Wajda in their countries. But Kiarostami was not only a filmmaker; he was foremost an artist in every way you can define that term.
By his own admission, Kiarostami was not a born filmmaker. Shortly before his unexpected death on July 4 in Paris, he related in an interview that he was “shoved” into cinema. His inclinations and training as a young man were toward graphic design, painting and photography, arts he continued in his cinematic maturity. Although his movies depict a microcosm of life in a revolutionary Muslim society (with its inherent suspicion of any form of portrait imagery), it’s his intimate focus on the details of individual, fragile human lives lived that so elevates his work, making him a surprising spokesman for a society in often halting transition. This close concentration on individual lives rather than societal types or political activism may be what enabled his movies to escape the censoring scrutiny of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic government — at least for a time.
Kiarostami’s earliest films focus on children. In fact, from The Experience (1973) and The Traveler (1974) to the young boy who abandons and later reappears in his mother’s car in Ten (2002), children have carried much of the narrative weight of his movies.
It was mainly in the final decade of Kiarostami’s life that the poet/philosopher, matching words to his still photos, took the foreground. His early work calls to mind the Neorealism of Roberto Rossellini’s early films, not just in terms of narrative structure and the use of street locations, but also in the examination of life’s journey embodied by young non-professional actors.
In the hour-long 2003 documentary Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living, producer Seamus McSwiney, critic Fergus Daly and documentarian Pat Collins open with the director’s walk on Ireland’s Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay. Kiarostami seems here to be in an alien universe: windswept, rocky outcroppings lined against cobalt skies, a visual field far removed from the clogged urban streets and sere, dusty landscapes that define many of the director’s best-known films. Mingling Kiarostami’s reflections with scenes from his films and the observations of critics such as Michel Cimènt, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Godfrey Cheshire, this intimate documentary gives us a succinct but emotionally engaging window into the director’s vision. Regardless of whether or not you already know several of Kiarostami’s movies, this documentary, funded by the Irish Film Board and the Galway Film Centre, offers a unified presentation of his work; themes and characters grow and evolve in successive films, much like the spirals of a chambered nautilus. It is magic to see such unity of intent and development in his movies, especially in a medium where filmmakers more often float from movie deal to movie deal, leaving students and critics struggling to find any thin auteurist thread that gives even weak coherence to their work.
Only a filmmaker like the dour and often death-obsessed Ingmar Bergman or the Jansenist rigors of Bresson offers an equivalent personal vision. But even in a death-haunted film like The Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami reaches toward life—literally, from the grave. The Irish documentary also includes engaging clips of Kiarostami at work, acting as the off-camera shaper of his non-professional actors’ performances.
In September 2011, the U.K.’s Channel 4 broadcast The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-episode series created and narrated by Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins. It is an extraordinarily comprehensive, idiosyncratic, yet deeply personal journey through cinema history.
In Episode 13, “New Boundaries,” Cousins explores the work of Kiarostami and fellow Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. An excerpt illustrates the interlocking and developmental progression of Kiarostami’s narratives in successive films by exploring his early Koker Trilogy, three films that fall squarely into the Neorealist tradition. Exploring the signatory Kiarostami style, Cousins intercuts moments from all three films:
In 2006, Kiarostami made Roads of Kiarostami, a deeply personal 32-minute documentary short that reveals the poet and the photographer embedded in his soul. The film includes dozens of the 1,000-plus still photographs of roads that the filmmaker has made over the course of his career. Employing a pan-and-scan technique that follows dual vehicle tracks over serpentine single-lane roads in mountains and deserts, the film mesmerizes the viewer’s eye with the rhythmic zigzag contouring of these remote pathways.
Breaking this insistent imagery is an infrequent live-action panning shot of a solitary car following the road’s tracks. Over all this plays haunting, melancholic horn music. At the 20-minute mark, a live-action shot, a POV of the road seen through a vehicle window, signals the final part of the film, all of which unfolds in a landscape covered by freshly fallen snow.
There is a cut to Kiarostami as the vehicle driver. He spies a dog in the snow at the side of the road, stops the vehicle, and attempts to take its photograph as the video camera zooms past him to follow the dog. On the cut, we see Kiarostami, who has left the vehicle, walk past a fence and off toward the mountains.
There follows one of the most poetically beautiful sequences in all of cinema. Beginning with photographs of very dark bush limbs and tree branches jutting out of the snow, the perspective slowly widens, shot by shot, to reveal a near metaphysical series of views of a mountain range.
Then, there are several shots of animals and dogs, the last looking directly at the lens as the photo itself … I won’t reveal what the last image is, but to me, at least, it is one of the most heartfelt images in cinema. In his narration, which until this moment has comprised Iranian poetry, Kiarostami explains why roads and car interiors are so prevalent in his films, even serving as the essence of many of them.
The road, the journey, has long been a staple in the work of poets, from Chaucer and Dante to Milton and down to Robert Frost. In the still and movie lenses of Kiarostami, it achieves a visual transcendence beyond words. The film ends with a quote from the Shiite Nahjulbalagha text:
Dear Lord, give us rain from tame, obedient clouds and not from dense and fiery clouds which summon death. Amen.
Every fall, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screens for its Foreign Language Film Committee all the films submitted for Oscar consideration by more than 80 countries. The outlier filmmaker Luis Buñuel, the subject of my last post, won the award in 1972 for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Kiarostami never won the Oscar, nor was he ever nominated. When I inquired with a colleague at the Academy, Meredith Shea, to ask how this could be, how one of the most important filmmakers of the late 20th/early 21st century could have been so overlooked, her response was simple: Iran had never submitted his films. The most transparent, most human voice of a society that remains mysterious to the West eventually became a pariah in his own land. His last two films were made in France and Japan.
Sic transit mundi.
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