The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has repeatedly said he enjoys it when audiences fall asleep during his films. This might explain his relative anonymity in America. After all, we’ve been told to go to movie theaters for escapism, thrills, adventures, stories. We’re conditioned to laugh and empathize and get angry and get duped and get inspired. This is why “going to the movies” often works us up and wears us out— even if we’re all sitting silently in a dark room.
But movies don’t necessarily have to tell gripping stories. Take the magical finale of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The film’s unnamed protagonist (“the Engineer”) takes a bone he was given in a cemetery and throws it into a river. The bone’s path down the river seems both immaculately directed and entirely improvised, its movement somehow perfectly choreographed, a bit of nature controlled by an unseen artist. It’s cathartic only in the sense that it’s beautiful to watch—and it’s hard to detect why it’s beautiful. It seems silly to wonder why, too. For nearly two hours, Kiarostami has tugged us around an Iranian village similar to those in his other films—hilly, brown, primitive—with a cascade of images, stories, incidental characters and repeating gags. Objects enter and exit the fray; endless shots of roads coalesce into infinity loops, or childhood notebook scrawls, or lightning bolts. The bone is less a symbol than a repository for the emotions and confusion we have felt in watching the film. It is a harbinger of Kiarostami’s version of truth: poetic, repetitive, and ultimately transcendent.
Kiarostami began working in Iran’s film industry in the late 1960s, designing titles for Iran’s Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, also known as “Kanoon.” He later made his own films for Kanoon about childhood problems. These early films are simple in style and moral outlook, reaffirming shared worldwide beliefs about child rearing: don’t lie, respect your elders, accept personal responsibility. They hint, however, at a subversive quality by establishing the world of children as permeated by free will and the potential for moral discovery— things often denied to Iranian adults.
Kiarostami’s focus on children is a funny effect of Iranian history. In 1978, before the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement torched the Cinema Rex in Abadan, killing over 400 moviegoers in one of the worst terrorist attacks in modern history. When the Ayatollah returned in February of 1979, more movie theaters around the country were burned by his supporters as symbols of Western decadence and pornography. America’s continued support of the Shah, as well as its dominance in international cinema, contributed to the arsonists’ motivation.
The Ayatollah, however, recognized the power of cinema; in particular he admired Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969)—a movie about poor, neglected people, with a poetic heart and a naturalist bent in which women remained subservient and spiritual redemption was paramount. It certainly wasn’t Hollywood, which made it palatable to the Ayatollah. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Kiarostami’s contemporaries (and a featured player in Kiarostami’s Close-Up ), has said that the only good thing to come of censorship in Iran was the banning of American films.
The Ayatollah’s new censorship encouraged films similar to The Cow by limiting the types of stories that could be told. Without violence, sex or strong women at their disposal, Iran’s filmmakers did what great artists do: they turned their limitations into strengths. Iran’s best films tend to be about children. If a boy falls for a girl, it’s puppy love and doesn’t end in sex (or even a kiss—Kiarostami was almost Richard Gere’d in 1997 at Cannes for kissing Catherine Deneuve on the cheek); if a child is in a fight, it’s usually a thrown rock, not a gangland shootout.
Though Kiarostami’s latest films have deviated from this formula, they also haven’t been shown in Iran for over a decade. Indeed, because of its suspicion of even mildly dissident subject matter, the country rarely shows the films of its finest artists—Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and the Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, to name a few. The censors rarely disclose why, often issuing vague decrees that a film is “rebellious,” but films depicting women’s rights or contradicting any tenet of Islam are usually forbidden, which would explain why the suicide-centric Taste of Cherry (1997) was never shown. In a sign of fair-minded censorship, Iran banned Kiarostami’s next film, Certified Copy (2009), before it was even completed.1
Kiarostami never speaks about politics in interviews—he’s a cipher on the issue of Ahmadinejad—and his films shy away from direct political statements. He has continued to work in Iran, however, and still lives there, although perhaps it is telling that the Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy is his first narrative film shot outside of his home country. Most of his films reflect his complicated relationship with the Iranian authorities— namely, he won’t stir the pot and they’ll leave him alone. But part of what made Ten (2002) so striking in the West was that it was the first time Kiarostami seemed angry:the movie’s main character, a young mother, explodes in an early segment over how humiliating it had been for her to secure a divorce. After so many features that kept quiet, Ten’s fury was conspicuous. Naturally, nobody in Iran saw it.
One response to having limitations placed on what material can be depicted in one’s films is to make subversive films for a foreign audience; another is to use film to point one’s viewers beyond the limitations of the material altogether. To that end, Kiarostami’s filmic style is best approached in relation to that of the directors described by Paul Schrader in his seminal book Transcendental Style in Film. Schrader’s book focuses on Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, France’s Robert Bresson and Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer as practitioners of the “transcendental style.” Schrader writes:
There is a spiritual truth that can be achieved by objectively setting objects and pictures side by side that cannot be obtained through a subjective personal or cultural approach to those objects.
Like Ozu and Bresson, Kiarostami uses non-actors (Bresson called them “models” and instructed them to read lines rote and monotone; Kiarostami’s approach to actors isn’t much different, as portrayed in Through the Olive Trees ), and repeats motifs, images and themes throughout his work. An effect particular to Kiarostami is that of the semi-mystical conclusion, which generally does less to resolve the drama of his narrative than to confound it. The viewer is often left with the feeling she’s witnessed something monumental happen in miniature.
In Kiarostami’s best work, his stories culminate in a moment of transcendence emerging out of the disparity between a character’s emotional life and the viewer’s experience of the film. This is what Schrader refers to as “stasis”— “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity [between character and viewer] but transcends it.” Kiarostami’s mastery of stasis is the best way to understand the transcendent power of his art. Although his films have the visual hallmarks we’ve come to associate with “poetry” in filmmaking— long takes, shots of nature, poems recited in voiceover— it is in those “frozen” moments that Kiarostami truly reproduces the hallmarks of poetic experience: timelessness, indeterminacy, truth as a property of feeling rather than narrative. When that bone is floating down that river, the viewer forgets he is watching a movie. Kiarostami strips the moment of artifice— it feels as unpredictable, confounding and beautiful as life often is.
A remarkable fact about Kiarostami’s evolution as a filmmaker is that as his career has progressed, his visual style has regressed in terms of production value and complexity. Kiarostami believes smaller cameras make for better acting; he would happily sacrifice the resolution of his images for more realistic performances. Many directors start on digital video and graduate to more expensive film stocks and larger budgets. Kiarostami, however, has not shot a feature on film since The Wind Will Carry Us, instead preferring tiny home video cameras and limited, static shots. Ten consisted essentially of two different camera angles, both mounted on the dashboard of a mother’s car driving through Tehran. Kiarostami simplifies the image as much as possible; nevertheless, his camera captures plenty of visual beauty. Part of what makes Ten so compelling is the opportunity to view Tehran without anything as obvious as an establishing shot.
Indeed, roads and cars are essential to Kiarostami’s films, although not because he is interested in travel per se. More often, Kiarostami isolates two characters in a car, making escape—from the other passenger or the road they’re set on—impossible. Life, and Nothing More... (1991) is the first of Kiarostami’s films to fully incorporate the car, but its prequel of sorts, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), has the iconic Kiarostami road—a cartoonish zig-zag up a tree-topped mountain that our hero runs up and down throughout the film.
Kiarostami returns to the exact same road in Life, and Nothing More…. The film concerns a director (Farhad Kheradmand) and his son, Puya, driving toward the Koker region in an old sedan and searching for the real-life boys who acted in Friend’s Home in the wake of 1990’s Manjil-Rudbar earthquake. That film also features massive wide shots of treacherous mountainside roads framed by destruction. The film’s final shot is of Farhad, alone in his car, trying to get up an enormous “Z” of a road. It’s a striking visual image, recalling the zigzag of Friend’s Home and restating it in our mind. Then we see his sedan traveling up the stem of the Z. It almost reaches the turn before it runs out of steam and drifts back down the hill. At the bottom, a man Farhad has earlier ignored approaches the car and helps push him up the hill. Farhad reaches the top and drives away. Roll credits.
The effect is similar to the bone floating down the river, although here the stasis is more complicated. The road—typically a symbol for moving on, and usually represented visually by a horizon— is flattened and trivialized. We have come to think of the road as a path Farhad can’t escape (he spends a good portion of the film asking for directions, then not believing them). Meanwhile, we are denied a close-up shot of either Farhad or the man who pushes his car up the road. Close-ups are how audiences typically access characters and emotions, at least in traditional narrative cinema (and also in the courtroom scenes of Kiarostami’s own Close-Up and Shirin , or his documentary Homework , which all wring incredible emotion from the device). Instead, we’re presented with a random act of kindness and a visual corollary of the film’s meandering style.
Kiarostami’s long takes and real-time action have kept us with Farhad for his journey, but now we’re distant and helpless. Somehow, this increases the intensity of our connection with Farhad: getting up this hill has now superseded his larger journey of finding the boys. What better place to end a film than with a moment of random kindness and unusual beauty?
In 2003, Kiarostami made a great film that you could have made. Five had fewer production elements than family home videos. It is a movie of five parts; each part is a single shot running ten to twenty minutes long, filmed with a mini-DV camera no better than those under the glass at Wal-Mart. The first part, “Driftwood,” stars a piece of wood on the shore of Spain’s San Lorenzo beach. Waves nip at the log, tugging it a few feet with the tide before spitting it away. After a few minutes, the driftwood splinters and one section of it is swept away by the sea, exiting frame right.
A few more minutes of soothing waves lull you to sleep, or damn close to it— until, like a lover swimming to shore, the departed piece of driftwood returns in the distant water. It’s an emotional reunion not unlike that of the boy and the red balloon, or even Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball. “Driftwood” represents a return to the transcendence proposed by The Wind Will Carry Us and its floating bone, a bit of nature somehow controlled by the filmmaker and yet behaving entirely on its own. The driftwood and the bone have no idea how to act—they only know how to be real.