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.
This week sees the release of "Like Someone In Love," the director's latest film, which sees him head to Japan for the first time for a film that many have described as a companion piece to 2010's "Certified Copy," Kiarostami's first English-language feature and his first made outside of Iran. While, per our review from Cannes last year, the film isn't one of his finest, it still seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at his work to date. The director doesn't have the largest body of work, at least in fiction filmmaking -- he's also a prolific documentarian and occasionally makes experimental films too, as well as being a poet and an artist. Indeed, the question of truth and fiction is one that recurs across Kiarostami's work, often using documentary tropes in a fictional setting.
Nevertheless, we've limited ourselves for this feature purely to the director's fiction films, at least partly because much of his early work remains unavailable in the United States. So, below begins a brief primer to the major films of Abbas Kiarostami -- if you check out the film in the coming weeks, it should give you some tips on where to continue with the director's films.
"Where Is the Friend's Home?" (1987)
Inimitable Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami struck gold early on with his second feature, following a young boy attempting to deliver a notebook to his classmate which he absent-mindedly left at school. Should the boy return to class without this, he'll most certainly be expelled. The duration of the story involves the journey, which entails meeting various folk along the way who provide insight as well as directions. In a way it's kind of like the loosely-plotted road movies we've all come to know and love; the filmmaker uses the light premise to explore the rural areas and typical culture of the area. It's much more touching and optimistic than other renowned child-perspective movies ("The 400 Blows," "L'enfance nue") and without the spurious nature of movies that tread on similar sentimental water. [B+]
Playing fast and loose with the tenets of cinematic truth, documentary truth and outright lies, this genre-bending experiment focuses on the true-life story of a man who impersonated a filmmaker to ingratiate himself into the lives of an innocent family in Tehran. While this is played for fiction, Kiarostami has the real-life people playing themselves, acting out the charade of their lives, while peppering in actual footage of the ensuing trial. The combination of truth and playfulness seems like a rarity in the usually stone-face work of Kiarostami, but if anything, this film helps one to appreciate the sly humor and deconstructionism of the rest of his oeuvre by being such a self-conscious experiment. Even with the theatrics, it’s one of his most straightforward and fulfilling pictures. [A]
"Life and Nothing More..." (1992)
Meta is as meta does. In 1990, a devastating earthquake ravaged Northern Iran where the director's "Where Is the Friend's Home?" took place. Worried over the well-being of his two young leads, Kiarostami took to the road to make sure they were alive and well. The film follows this premise (somewhat of an alternate take on 'Friend's,' asking around for the boys), with an actor cast in the Abbas role and a young boy journeying with him. It's another excuse to partake in Iran's culture, but it also examines life, determination after tragedy, and human compassion. Though it has extra layers, the picture doesn't suffer from over-saturation and remains just as moving, if not more, as the first film in the "Koker Trilogy." [A]
"Through the Olive Trees" (1994)
Studios and creative teams struggle to build off a successful feature, but Kiarostami effortlessly squeezes two beautiful and naturalistic tales out of his 1987 treasure "Where Is the Friends Home?" In this closing part of the trilogy, a man from "Life and Nothing More..." attempts to woo his love interest, who (along with her family) is turned off by his lack of income and prospects. Love doesn't just give up, though, and the male seeks advice from the Abbas character while doing a scene involving his main squeeze. Bits from 'Life' are given a new layer and extended beyond their original cuts to detail the budding relationship between the prospective couple, which at times feel both voyeuristic and tender. These multiple and extensive observations into one situation constantly unveil new and varying layers to a situation already thought to be well-established, which is something that is often ignored by most directors either due to naivety or inexperience. Could the director have continued making movies with roots leading back to his sophomore feature? Probably, because even though it my seem like he exhausted the concept in theory, the three films remain as fresh as they ever were, and there's still plenty of culture and topics left to explore. Human beings, human relationships, and life in general are very complicated and complex topics, so why is Abbas one of the only filmmakers to acknowledge this? Beats us, but so long as he's taking that unpretentious approach, we're happy to have him. [A-]