acknowledgements to The Criterion Contraption

The proverb “first impressions are often correct” is challenged in this month’s film. Whereas mass media is good at feeding us shallow views, global cinema invites us to confront our prejudices.

Here is the second title from Iran for our series on films of our enemies. “Taste of Cherry” (1997), by Abbas Kiarostami, has appeared on numerous lists for the top ten movies of all time. On the other hand none other than Roger Ebert pronounced this masterpiece unfit to watch. I think the critic got stuck in his first impression and did not exercise due curiosity. We are all prone to this. I’ve done it.  For example, if I were to limit my entire assessment of the Iranian people based on what I encounter in the daily news, I’d be stuck with a bunch of superficial superstitions. Iranian cinema lifts us out of that rut.

I’m going to plunge into this post with a one-sided argument titled, “Stryder and Ebert at the Movies.” To hear Ebert’s side, just look up his review. Stryder – Richard, you made a harsh assessment of “A Taste of Cherry” after attending the premiere at Cannes. Me thinks you hate this film too much? You worked for a conservative newspaper. We’re you forced by your boss to dismiss this film because it came from Iran, and nothing this fine could come from such a place? I hope not, but your dislike of the film sounds more like a problem with indigestion than aesthetic flaws. You complained about the use of long takes. I happen to like them, when they work. But even if you don’t, there’s so much more to comment on in this film. You seem to have been distracted. You got some details in your review wrong, and made at least one major assumption that is not at all supported by the text.” We’ll come back to that…

Cherry’s style recalls Italian and Japanese neo-realist traditions. The main character and supporting cast are working class. The movie opens with, “In the name of Allah,” which is how traditional Muslim art always begins. It’s a form of common prayer, nothing radical about it. Both a blessing and a greeting, this phrase is as common as “hello” in the English language.

Everything that happens in this story belongs to the world of common people confronting ordinary problems in unglamorous surroundings. A morose man drives around industrial edged Tehran in search of an ally. His external environment develops for us out the window of his vehicle while he confronts the shifting angles of his inner struggle behind the steering wheel.

Critic Ebert was left cold by “Taste of Cherry.” Let’s put that in context. If a film like “The Fifth Element” opened Cannes that year,, how could a film like “Taste of Cherry” hope to close it?”

What an impossible act to follow, at Cannes no less. Despite that, “Taste of Cherry” won a Palme d’Or that year. Europe most prestigious award. Film lovers that listened to Ebert lost out.

Maybe Roger was in a political pinch. Whatever the reason I don’t hesitate to critique the critic. He picks on the filmmaker’s choice to film rugged exteriors on Tehran’s outskirts.  He claimed it dragged on an already slow story. “Roger, really?” Both those choices impress me as an ideal marriage of substance and style, demonstrating utter mastery of working in the wide open, on a tight budget, within a state controlled film industry. I’m dazzled.

Whats more Abbas brilliantly confines the action to within speaking distance of the automobile. Such simplicity exemplifies the economy and practicality of neorealist sensibilities. The scope of the story is equally as quaint. The main character has a problem for which he must enlist the help of a stranger to resolve. We’re never shown the reason for his blues, only some emotional bruises.

Ninety-eight percent of this film consists of a depressed man asking for a simple favor in exchange for two hundred thousand bucks. Mr. Badhi is his name. He is extremely shut down and stubborn. Our own mass media’s biases would be reinforced if we judged the entire Persian race based on the behavior of this man. But there are other characters in the story.

There is a good reason we never get to learn precisely why he behaves the way he does too. The filmmaker refuses to indulge our bias. If we knew the truth it would be easier to judge. Our minds could be made and we could go home. The filmmaker’s challenge is to overcome our prejudices which we form at the beginning.

While Mr. Badhi can be selfish and manipulative toward his fellow man, who could fail to be impressed by the common courtesy show to him by most of those he encounters? All but one of them patently listens. All but one, respectfully refuses. Many raise moral questions any average American could understand.

The specific ancestral variations in the representative ethnicities that Mr. Badhi picks up are spread across the spectrum common to the geographic region. A Kurd, an Afghani, a Turk. All three, in their own way, take Badhi into their confidence. The irony of which, I’ll bet, is especially rich to non-outsiders. Each rider, in their own way, politely offers moral reasons for refusing to assist. In his countrymen we detect no lack of compassion. Those random encounters furnish the foreign audience, evidence of an overall gentility pervading Iranian society. One gets the impression we could get along.

A series of gradually intensifying encounters with strangers gets us down the road with Mr. Badhi. The script stays busy forever holding back his motivation, while exposing ever more of his desperation; until finally some one gives in. This film’s ethic does not suggest everyone is morally obliged to go out of their way for Mr. Badhi in this unfamiliar corner of the world. Not everyone does. In fact the first chap goes out of his way the opposite direction.

How would I respond to Mr. Badhi? What if some world weary soul cruised up in his Land Rover right now, rolled down the window and tried to strike up a conversation? In Iran in 1993, anyway, he’s invited to hang out, share a bit of food, take tea with strangers. This is the way, I hope we’d all agree, that customs should be practiced in ideal society.

Although the main character exhibits greater and greater urgency on each successive excursions, it gets him nowhere. The more he commits to his grim task, the less effective he appears to be. Ironically, what he has been driving around looking for all day he suddenly discovers, literally at the beginning of act three. By then, the exterior surrounding of the protagonist is as finely tuned to his emotional truth, as any film I have ever seen.

Here is a backdrop that can literally swallow a man in one gulp. What more epic depiction of this man’s predicament could we ponder than those towering mounds of earth and massive commercial earthworks machines? I doesn’t make sense that critic Ebert wasn’t  dazzled by such first rate, cinematic flash. The setting seems to me an epic equivalent to any man’s whose faith in life is crumbling.

For the rest of us there can be no mistaking a transcendent event when we see one. The recurrrance of extremely long takes anesthetized Mr. Ebert, but leaves the rest of us breathless while Mr. Badhi’s soul surfaces in front of that tumbling backdrop. There’s some suggestion of a Heavenly Father’s mercy, or is that the Mother Earth’s fury underneath the mass of anonymous machinery. It waits by the side of road, available to grand his wish, immediately, if he insists.

Before that tragedy can transpire, enter the enlightened taxidermist. Here is someone that finally consents to fulfill the sullen man’s request. Up to now Mr. Badhi has taken a series of prospective conspirators for a ride. Now watch how he’s finally taken for one himself, in his own car, behind the wheel, by a passenger that doesn’t need to ask the specifics of the fellow’s ordeal.

To be continued next month…