There is a simple scene in the movie titled ‘Life and Nothing More’. An old man, a director, is driving along the Iranian countryside, which has been devastated by an earthquake recently. He stops at an old lady’s house and starts talking to her. The old lady is lifting some heavy load. The conversation goes like this.
Man: “I wish I could help you but my back gives me problems”
Old Lady: “That is OK. I can do this”
Man: “I am sorry I cannot help you. If my back was fine, I would have helped you”
A very simple scene in a documentary-like film and suddenly you realize what all troubles the earthquake victims must be going through. The film magically transforms itself from an Iranian film to a universal film.
To me, most Kiarostami’s films start after they end. They make me think. This film gives you a portrait of Iran which you will never get from the Western press. Beyond all the politics it talks about ordinary people and their ordinary struggles. The realization dawns on us that their lives are not very different from ours. What realms and realms of propaganda cannot achieve, Kiarostami achieves in a few frames. He breaks many walls and makes us empathize with a fellow human being beyond all the identities we cloak ourselves with.In the movie, ‘Through the Olive Trees’, a film crew is traveling in the back of a small lorry and they give a ride to a mother and her young daughter. Among the film crew is a youngster who wants to get married. After the mother and daughter get down at their destination, the director of the film crew asks the young actor,
Dir: “What about the girl who just got down. Why don’t you marry her? She is very pretty”
Actor: “But she is uneducated. I want to marry an educated woman”
Actor: “Because if both of us are not educated, how will we educate our children. So I want to marry an educated woman”
Dir: “You are uneducated. Wouldn’t an educated girl want to marry an educated guy? Why will she choose to marry you?”
A small smile appears on the actor’s lips.
Actor: “That is true but I want to marry an educated girl”
These aspirations are universal. Kiarostami is able to focus on such small incidents which connect with everyone instantly. It is this concern for the normal human being which probably ensured that the movies he made outside of Iran looked so authentic. They did not feel that they were made by a director who has never lived in that place.
Kurosawa famously said that when Ray died he was devastated but after watching Kiarostami he felt at peace since he had found someone who could replace Ray. Though their styles were quite different, Ray was very lyrical and Kiarostami quite formal, their compassion towards the common man remained the same. That human touch both gave to their films is what would have made Kurasowa think of Kiarostami as Ray’s replacement.
Kiarostami is a craftsman of the highest order but hides his craft successfully. In the movie, ‘Close-Up’, he builds the story brilliantly towards the climax. A man has been arrested as he had stayed with a family by impersonating the famous Iranian director Makmalbaf. The imposter hadn’t stolen anything nor had he behaved inappropriately. He just enjoys the hospitality of the family. He is arrested and a trial happens. The judge says that he can release the man if the family pardons him. This whole segment keeps you on the edge of the seat though Kiarostami doesn’t do anything to make it tense. It is just the way he presents the human situation that draws you into the drama and you are desperately hoping that the family will pardon the imposter. It is then you realize the craft of the master. On how in a film which almost plays out like a documentary he has pulled you in effortlessly.
Or take the way he plays out the drama in ‘Certified Copy’. The slow build up, the sudden twist in the tale and the subsequent happenings which leave the viewers dazed are all well thought through. Yet the impression given is one of ease. As if that is how the story would flow naturally. You don’t see the craft until you revisit it again.
‘Certified Copy’ also showed that Kiarostami was more concerned about human beings than he was about dazzling you. While the whole pretext of the movie is interesting (we have seen something similar in ‘Mood for Love’), Kiarostami’s aim is not to showcase his brilliance in screenwriting. Rather it was to bare open the soul of a single mother. A simple scene where the single mother (Binoche) is walking with the male protagonist and talking on the phone to her teenage son tells us so many things. You suddenly understand the deep frustration of the woman as well as the enormous burden she has to bear. Towards the climax when the male protagonist washes his face, you see the terror on his face. I am not sure if he is terrorized by the situation he has got himself into or whether he is terrified because he has understood what the woman is going through.
It is probably in his last feature film, a Japanese film, ‘Like Someone in Love’, that his craft comes to the fore. The film is almost like reading a top class short story. The interaction between the Professor and the boyfriend and the subsequent complexities which push the story forward are quite different from the earlier Kiarostami’s film. Here we see Kiarostami displaying his craft a bit more than he did in his earlier movies. Additionally, this is one movie, which has what we can call as a traditional story and thus easily assessable to a larger audience. (I love the way Kiarostami capture Tokyo through its sounds. More than the neon lights, it is the incessant sound which is typical of Tokyo and Kiarostami doesn’t miss a single sound)
Kiarostami was more interested in the moral and existential dilemmas than in their solutions. ‘Taste of Cherry’ is an example of this approach. The answer really doesn’t matter. What matters is how people react to certain situations which can be morally ambiguous. Similarly, we see how the situation is a very ambiguous one for the ‘hero’ in ‘Certified Copy’. Many a time Kiarostami lets us decide the climax. This can put off some people but it is very consistent with the aesthetics of Kiarostami.
Kiarostami resembles the great Indan writer, Ashokamitran, a lot. Ashokamitran’s writing too isn’t lyrical. They are quite formal I would say and he too to conveys his compassion towards fellow human beings effortlessly. Both Kiarostami and Ashokamitran show us incidents from a distance, in the sense that they are completely non-judgmental. This distance is what accentuates their humaneness. The author doesn’t speak on anybody’s behalf and yet when you complete viewing / reading their work, you unambiguously know which side they are on.
Kiarostami’s loss is a major one for he was in top form even in his last film, ‘Like Someone in Love’. It is but natural that he would have given us great films going forward. In that way, we are missing some great art. He will go down as one of all time greats of world cinema. His place in the pantheon along with filmmakers like Ray, Kurosawa, Ozu et al is assured.
It is well known that it was Kiarostami who put Iranian cinema on the world map. Unlike the Indian film scene where there weren’t many to carry Ray’s legacy forward, the Iranian film scene is more robust and boasts of filmmakers like Makmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Asghar Farhadi. Kiarostami has been an inspiration to them and will continue to inspire more filmmakers, not only in Iran but throughout the world. May he rest in peace.