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Judging by what we are shown

We rejoin our discussion of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” (1993) in our series on the films of our enemies.

The ultimate passenger on Mr. Badhi’s journey is the most uncommon, common man of all. If we in the audience haven’t yet figured out how to crack Mr. Badhi’s depression, this compassionate passenger provides the grist.

What an altogether masterful cinematic choice it was to equip that man in the shotgun seat with the profession of a taxidermist. Doesn’t that craft bestow a kind of eternal life on ephemeral things? Consider then just what contents are concealed in the final passenger’s valise. Though they are never visually revealed, we later discover that a number of partridges and quails met their life’s end at this fellow’s hand. He’s killed them to instruct apprentices on how to mount and preserve them.

A taxidermist presence also draws attention to Badhi’s hollowness and his doomed stance. In contrast one gets the sense that this transporter-of-flesh intimately understands what makes a difference on the surface versus what’s underneath.

At the centerpiece of his soliloquy he reassures Mr. Badhi’s that we all feel trapped at some point in our life. It always passes. If we let it happen, life will not fail to reward us with something unforgettable that makes our saga worth enduring. The taxidermist artfully enumerates the joy that can be found in common things as simple as a sunrise, a taste of cherry, or the sound of children playing.

The end of Mr. Badhi’s story is not an end, per se, nor is it the final scene of the movie. We are never shown how it turns out for the depressed man. It is one more thing we must take home to work on.

An altogether radical shift of subject occurs before we fade to black. Ingmar Bergman and Jean Luc Godard were praised for this kind of bravado. Numerous prodigies have followed their lead. It consists of revealing the filmmaking process, opening the frame up to reveal the storytellers. This post-modern device which has been in vogue since the 60’s, really irked Ebert for some reason.

Kiarostami demonstrated just how liberal his country’s cultural police are capable of being. But the most popular American critic of the past three decades missed this completely. The censors Kiarostami answered to inside Iran were Islamic clerics. Ironically, they were more liberal in their judgment of this film than Mr. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Anyone willing to figure on the grander equation in “Taste of Cherry” is rewarded. Those of us in the audience that suspect an enlightened scheme should find it more than worth our effort to uncover it. Certainly it would imply some redemption for Mr. Badhi if film watchers like ourselves can relate to him, even a tiny bit, in his hour of need. And we are redeemed a bit with him. It’s the same justification for why all human dilemmas become immortalized in art.

If we could rewind to the very first encounter, the one with tile yard employee. This scene appears like an attempted homosexual hook-up. Here is the scene in which the critic Ebert got lost. He proclaims it to be some sort of red herring. And it may appear that way to some, but not all. I take it as fact that the director’s choice to leave it open was integral to the story. Part of the genius of this scene is how it invalidates eye-witness accounts. They are so much of what we depend on for truth in the judicial system and on the nightly news and they can be so false.

Cinema proves witnesses are never reliable. Before we’ve studied each frame in the sequence, we might be able to convince ourselves the exchange between these two men implies an attempted sex hook-up. Whether these two men are strangers to each other or have some shared history is ambiguous, and that is intentional. It is a deliberate play to place emphasis on the subtext. The tone and delivery of the few spare lines of dialog, actually flip flops one way then the other. Who can say definitively what is going on?

Watch the movie up to that point and then turn it off. If you don’t see the rest of the film it could be interpreted in any number of ways. The point is we can’t know all that might be transpiring between these two unsettled beings, simply judging by what we are shown. This is a good lesson to carry home. It should heighten our discrimination and make us keener observers.

The offer of money in this scene could be for the same reason Mr. Badni offers it to all the rest, or it could be a last attempt at redemption for some prior offense, or something else. We sense something bigger taking place before our eyes but we can’t tell what, and that should pique our curiosity. This easily dismissible scene should be the trigger for the main character’s entire trajectory. We should automatically presume unless proven otherwise, if a filmmaker defies our expectations, he’s shining light, a signal to the astute viewer. The audience is being asked to work on the problem until we can make sense of it.

I don’t bother deciding if it is a gay come-on scene or not. The information on the screen simply states, appearances can be deceiving. It could be a trivial thing, such as same sex copulation, or it could be the aftermath of some truly wicked thing that we are witnessing, or anything in between. Or it could all amount to nothing, as Ebert wanted to think.

What if it’s a different scene from all the rest? The encounter at the tile yard should be the inciting incident. I say “should’ because, it’s right there where it belongs in a conventional feature-length script. Somewhere around page ten you’ll almost always find the bit of business that culminates in the protagonist setting off on his journey between there and the final FADE OUT.

I’m going to propose that whether either of those men are gay, they know each other from the past, recent or otherwise. The have some unfinished business. Mr. Badhi is trying to fix it before he goes and does the other thing which makes up the rest of the story. Its amazing how the emotional tone of the actors can fit either interpretation and how his subsequent errand adds up. If the tile yard guy is his son, how does it change the ending? If he is that, or a younger brother or a former lover it doesn’t matter. What if he’s trying to get rid of dirty money that will tie him to a crime? When it fails, he tries another tack, the one he tries with every other passenger after that.

Let’s say after hearing what I propose, you don’t jive. Fine, decide for yourself. Either way, there is plenty of enlightening content to be absorbed, if we don’t let ourselves doze off. Writing from Cannes, Ebert describes “this is an excruciatingly boring film.” The best lesson we should take home from that is, don’t go out and eat a fancy French meal then try to watch this gem. We’re entitled to ignore Mr. Ebert for once. He got lazy. If it was not a masterpiece for him, at least it can be one for you and me.

 

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