TASTE OF CHERRY (TA’M E GUILASS)
(director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami; cinematographer: Homayon Payvar; cast: Homayoun Ershadi (Mr. Badii), Mir Hossein Noori (The seminarian), Abdolrahman Bagheri (Mr. Bagheri, the taxidermist), Safar Ali Moradi (The soldier); Runtime: 99; Zeitgeist Films; 1997-Iran)
“I know from my past experiences with great filmmakers, that sometimes I don’t like what I see from them the first time and later on change my mind.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A dour westernized Tehranian, who seems to be questioning the value of living, is riding around Tehran looking for someone to help him kill himself. It might be a big let down if you were expecting to see this fable come to a necessary resolution, but the film ends rather abruptly and it allows you to come to your own conclusion about what the story means. It is a film that gets better as you step away from it and realize how much intellectual weight there actually was in the telling of its austere story. It is vividly shot with a cast made up of mostly nonprofessional actors. The director, Abbas Kiarostami, who many film critics consider to be one of the greatest living film directors, is known for his use of the long shot. He uses it to pan the harsh mountainous vistas and the faces of those itinerant Iranians who are seen through the eyes of a forlorn and, at times, loquacious, middle-aged driver of a luxurious Land Rover, Mr. Badii (Ershadi).
Badii’s odyssey takes him to the brown dirt fields and barren hills on the outskirts of Tehran.
This is a philosophical and humanistic movie that asks people what is it that they want to get out of life and are they prepared to do something to ensure for themselves a happiness that hasn’t been prescribed. It also indirectly asks the question, why would anyone in good health and being sane want to kill themselves!
Mr. Badii wants to pay someone to make sure he is dead. That night he plans to swallow enough sleeping pills to kill himself and then he will go lie down in a hole he has dug for himself in the outskirts of town. He asks the various people he meets, will you come to the spot at 6 a.m. and call out my name and if I reply, help me out of the hole? If I don’t, cover my body with 20 spadefuls of dirt. Then take my car and there will be $200,000 tomans inside the glove compartment for you.
We don’t really know the reason Mr. Badii wants to die and we know almost nothing about his personal life except when he mentions to the poor seminarian he is trying to recruit, that you don’t know how someone else feels. You may be able to sympathize with them, but you could never understand their pain.
Badii seems to be an upper-class gentleman, as observed by his demeanor and appearance. But again, we can only guess at who he is and why he wants to commit suicide. To the director it is obviously not that important, or else he would have provided us with more information.
We first see Mr. Badii drive slowly through the streets of Tehran, as young men approach him asking for jobs as laborers. He then meets some children happily playing in a rusted car. We are able to see the stark contrasts of Iranian life, such as between ‘the Haves (Mr. Badii)-and-the Have-Nots (the laborers and the children).’ This is a theme that will run throughout the film.
Badii first encounters a laborer as he reaches the outskirts of town, who is presently talking on the outdoor phone about his money problems. Badii tells him he has a job for him that pays plenty of money. But the laborer threatens to beat Mr. Badii up if he doesn’t mind his own business and go away. He probably thought like I did at first, that Badii was trying to pick him up. Badii next meets a poor worker clad in a UCLA sweatshirt, who collects plastic bags for the factory to recycle. He expresses no interest in Mr. Badii’s offer to make a lot of money, saying that this is what he knows how to do and doesn’t want to do anything else.
Badii gives a timid Kurd soldier a ride back to the barracks and tries to engage him in a conversation, asking him what his army life is like. Badii starts reminiscing back to his army days which he says were the happiest days in his life, where he met the friends he still has. The soldier, who was a farmer as a civilian, says he needs the money that army pay is not good enough. He just doesn’t want to do it; he is no grave digger. The first chance he gets, he runs away.
In Badii’s continuing quest his car almost slides down the steep embankment, where the only people present are the quarry workers. A group of workers without saying anything, quickly come to his aid and push him out of his predicament. Again, the contrasts are evident. This time it is between the men’ silence and the noise from their work.
When Badii comes across an old Afghani man who is a security guard for a construction company that has a gigantic concrete making machine on its premises, he tries to get the old man to come for a ride with him. He tells him no one will steal the stuff, it is too big, besides today is a holiday. But the old man doesn’t want to hear how unimportant his job is, he just wants to do his duty whatever it may be. The old man invites Badii up for some tea, making him climb up an unsteady ladder. Ironically Badii complains that it is unsafe and this sounds strange, especially coming from someone who is ready to kill himself. It becomes evident to Badii that the lonely old man is not willing to kill him, so he doesn’t even bother to present him with his proposal. He turns his attention instead on the old man’s young friend, who is just visiting him for a couple of days and is a fellow Afghani, studying in the seminary. But he cannot do it for the reason that the Moslem religion does not permit suicide, and Badii’s cogent argument that sometimes by staying alive you do more harm to others than by dying just falls on deaf ears.
At a particularly depressing work-site where the dust is whirling around and the workers all wear masks to help them breathe, Badii just sits in his car and seems to be oblivious to all the rocks and bad air around him. And when a worker, who appears to be foreign, politely asks him to move his car, that it is in the way of the bulldozer, he seems unable to move or respond as the worker gently asks him if he is feeling well.
In the next scene, we hear someone with an older voice talking with Badii. He has already accepted the offer to do what Badii wants, telling him that he has a sick anemic child that he needs the money for.
Mr. Bagheri (Baghieri) is a Turk who talks incessantly. He gives the film its lyrical voice it badly needed to counterpoint the tremendously impressive visual scope.
The table is now turned, as Badii becomes very quiet because he does not have to talk Mr. Bagheri into doing the job. Mr. Bagheri tries his best to convince him that life is worth living. He tells him about how his own suicide attempt ended in a failure, how he tried to hang himself on a mulberry tree but ended up tasting the mulberry. Then he asks Badii, don’t you want to taste the cherry? Don’t you want to see the dawn and the beauty of the sunset, and the stars and the moon? He offers logical reasons for staying alive. But Badii is concerned only with going over the details of his plan with Mr. Baghieri, who it turns out works in the museum of natural history and is a man of science: a taxidermist. He is returning from the hills, where he was gathering quails to be stuffed. Again, the contrasts in life are shown. A man who takes life, is also the one who preserves life.
The women all wear head scarves which to the Westerner, is an archaic way of treating women. Kiarostami could have shot these women this way as a very subtle dig at Iranian culture, as he shows that even educated women who are working at the museum must be clad that way. Kiarostami’ point is that all women are meant to be demeaned by such rigid fundamentalist laws of the state.
The film suddenly changed directions, and depending on how you feel a film should be made might be how you felt about what the director did.
Badii goes back to his luxury apartment in town, but we are not shown if he took the pills or not; and, then, we see it is daytime and the soldiers are doing marching drills in the hills and then taking a break and joking around with each other. A film crew is talking to Badii as he is smoking a cigarette. They indicate that they have just wrapped up shooting the film they were working on. As it turns out, this film is a ‘film within a film.’ Therefore, no real ending is required.
Films are meant to pose questions and not tell stories. That questions are more important than answers. They make us think harder about the things we do.
My thought about the death of the linear film as pronounced by the director is that if all you did was ask questions, as valuable as they are in the educational process, you would still end up being the idiot questioner. Somewhere along the line you will have to take a stand and state what it is you believe. That statement might come across best in a linear story or some other format, and not by becoming dogmatic about how a film should be made. Why Kiarostami might resort to this form of filmmaking, at least for this film, could have something to do with Iran’s repressive government and their long list of in-tolerances. If he openly criticized them, it would probably result in no more Kiarostami films for foreign audiences to adore.
I’m a little reluctant to accept any one way of making films as being the vade mecum of filmmaking. If the film has that certain magic, it will work. I thought the ending was not only a cop out, you don’t know for sure if Mr. Badii committed suicide or not, but it also took the air out of the story’s power and made it seem like a tease. Kiarostami was having fun with the audience and if you weren’t in the mood for his jokes, then you might have thought like I did that it was just too contrived and took away a very good experience. By ending on that false note and shooting it on video instead of film, it made it seem to me as if I was being put down for taking him seriously. If the reason that Kiarostami did that is because he thought that I needed a break at that point of the film, that I was forgetting that it was just a film I was seeing, then he miscalculated on how I felt.
But I still believe the film had a potent political message that was delivered in subterranean way, a message that is meant to shake us out of the habitual way we look at life (and at film) and fail to recognize how important our dreamworld really is to us. It is also a film that tells of the importance in tasting every drop of joy from even the most barren life, something that those who live in oppressed countries know better than those who live in a democracy.
I know from my past experiences with great filmmakers, that sometimes I don’t like what I see from them the first time and later on change my mind and see more clearly what they were doing as time passes. So I’ll leave open the option that my distaste for the film’s jarring ending will be subject to change; that is, if that is meant to be so.
REVIEWED ON 5/14/99 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/