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The Films Of Abbas Kiarostami: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 13, 2013 at 2:23PM

Considering the near-impossible restrictions and generally repressive atmosphere in Iran, it's extraordinary the degree to which the country's film industry has flourished in the past 30 years. Perhaps the best known of the Iranian filmmakers, internationally, is Abbas Kiarostami, who's become a staple of film festivals and increasingly beloved by film fans across the world.
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Taste Of Cherry

"Taste of Cherry" (1997)
Having collaborated with former assistant Jafar Panahi on the screenplays for the excellent "The Journey" and "The White Balloon," Kiarostami came back in force with another semi-road movie: "Taste of Cherry." The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the filmmaker having only just been allowed to leave the country to attend the festival at the last minute, and it launched the director to international fame. Following Badii (a superb Homayoun Ershadi, who in reality is an architect), a middle-aged man searching the countryside outside Tehran for someone to throw earth in his grave after he commits suicide, it's one of Kiarostami's most divisive films -- patient and languid to a fault, many have dismissed the film as dull and self-indulgent. We'd respectfully disagree, however -- Kiarostami's humanism is front-and-center, and the film's more oblique qualities actually give it a more wide-reaching profundity, perfectly matched by the director's beautifully plain shooting style. The film's coda, which cuts suddenly to behind-the-scenes footage of Kiarostami and his crew making the film, accompanied by Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary," is equal parts baffling and brilliant. Few directors have tackled the simple banalities of death and its relationship with life with such skill. [A-]

The Wind Will Carry Us

"The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999)
Bafflingly, Kiarostami has a reputation among some of his critics for being overly serious, even po-faced, but those who think this clearly haven't seen "The Wind Will Carry Us." His second international festival success in a row, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the picture once again blends truth and fiction, documentary and drama, but to effect more dryly funny than anything in his career to date. Following The Engineer (a filmmaker of sort), who's come to a small village to document the death of a woman who may be as much as 100 years old. Again, the central characters' motives remain cloudy for much of the film, even to himself, and it's one of the most genuinely spiritual films you could ever hope to see, but never in a way that feels preachy or forced. It's probably the director's most formally perfect work as well -- it's the last time he worked on film, as opposed to digital, and the collaboration here with great Iranian DoP Mahmoud Kalari makes you wish that he'll return to it one day soon. Somewhat undervalued on release, history's seen it take its place as Kiarostami's most personal, and possibly even his best, work. [A+]

Ten

"Ten" (2002)
Nominated for the Palme d'Or and starring female director Mania Akbari, this 2002 entry sported a simple premise: 10 car conversations are accounted with two consumer DV cameras attached to both sides of the vehicle. While it may sound amateur in scope and overly-talky, it's actually a nonpareil, private look into the social (and political) climate of modern-day Iran. These non-actors dig deep and expose themselves, and one of the most memorable instances involves a teary, jilted woman removing her headscarf and revealing a shaved head -- one of the first (if not first) times this has been done on film in the country. There's also the mother-son relationship, one that's severely tainted by an on-going divorce that the boy isn't taking particularly well, something that is universally relatable. The youth vocalizes his frustrations without any sort of dignity or censorship -- exactly as a child would -- and the result is something a bit off-putting, but real. Despite glowing reviews, the single-setting and raw presentation isn't for everyone, including this writer's cousin (who caught it in a Persian class and cites "The Blind Side" as a great movie) who claims that it was "the worst movie ever" and that all the boy needed was a slap in the face. That's an interesting perspective, to say the least. [B]

Certified Copy

"Certified Copy" (2010)
With Kiarostami finding life increasingly difficult in Iran (his films haven't been shown there in a decade, and his friend Jafar Panahi receiving a disgraceful six-year prison sentence), it was only a matter of time before he started to look outside Iran for subject matter, and, following a contribution to the portmanteau picture "Tickets," it came in last year's Cannes debut of the excellent "Certified Copy." Casting international star Juliette Binoche, a long time friend of Kiarostami, who also appeared in his experimental film "Shirin," was bound to raise the film's profile, and it's the director's most accessible film by about a million miles -- if you're unfamiliar with his work, this is really where you should start. A swooning romance, sort of, pairing Binoche with British opera singer William Shimell (in a role once linked to Robert De Niro, believe it or not), it's as moving and adult a depiction of a relationship as we've seen in a long time, while still remaining identifiably Kiarostami. While it's perhaps slighter than the very best of his Iranian work, it suggests that the 70-year-old filmmaker still has some surprises in store. [A-]

Odds & Ends: Kiarostami has a body of work stretching back to the early 1970s, most notably his early feature, "Gozaresh," which sadly no one on staff was able to track down -- as far as we can tell, it's never received a formal release in the U.S. or U.K. We hope we do soon, though, particularly because it stars Shoreh Aghdashloo, who a quarter-century later would be nominated for an Oscar for her role in "House of Sand and Fog." It was followed by a series of shorts in the 1980s, while his 1989 documentary "Homework" in particular is well-regarded by those that have seen it.

A true film fan, Kiarostami's also collaborated on the portmanteau pictures "Lumiere and Company" and "Tickets," the latter with Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi -- Kiarostami's segment being, to our eyes, the strongest of the three. He's also continued to work in documentary both traditional -- the moving, powerful "ABC Africa" -- and highly experimental -- the Ozu-influenced "Five," the autobiographical "10 on Ten" and "The Roads of Kiarostami." His features can verge on the experimental as well -- 2008's "Shirin" focuses entirely on the faces of the women watching a theatre performance of a famous Persian poem, and is thoroughly fascinating, if something of a slog to even the most dedicated fan.

--Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro

This article is related to: Feature, Foreign Directors, Abbas Kiarostami


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