On what levels can death manifest itself in film? Hamish Ford turns to the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami to unfold the ways in which the quotidian nature of death both explicitly and implicitly determines five of his films, while thereby showing Kiarostami’s celebration of life in all its richness.
When the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami died in July, 2016, the world lost one of its greatest, most innovative and influential cinematic creators. After first making mainly short and documentary films in the 1970s prior to the Iranian Revolution, from the mid-1980s Kiarostami wrote and directed a string of progressively celebrated cinematic masterpieces, before moving increasingly at the turn of the century to video art designed for gallery environments. In the final years of his life he returned to feature filmmaking, but now outside Iran. In addition to film and video work, since 2000 Kiarostami also received greater critical attention for his photography and, to a lesser degree, his published poetry.
Many of Kiarostami’s greatest films concern death, either prominently treated at the heart of the narrative or very strongly suggested, if less explicitly stated. This article will examine death as it plays out in five of the director’s major films, all of which feature the spectre of death as a key reality, theme, or suggestion. In addition, I wish to tease out two other but equally important forms of death that occur throughout these films and in Kiarostami’s oeuvre more broadly. First and most obviously, in these five films either ‘actual’ death or its inevitability is often a palpable presence within the narrative. Second, the viewer is confronted with what I see as multiple small but accumulatively significant social or interpersonal ‘deaths’, whereupon a scene or shot charts in rather minute – and for some audiences at least, frustrating – detail, recurrent and perhaps terminal failures of communication, ambition and purpose. Third, any discussion of the director’s work must consider the formal, audiovisual layer through which he exercises his subtle, insidious magic, with almost every shot or edit ‘killing off’ what mainstream narrative films (and much ‘art cinema’, too) usually purport to provide.
These three levels of death – which can be summarised as thematic, social, and cinematic – play equally important and often interconnected roles in the films I address, spanning Kiarostami’s feature film-making career. These are: Where is the Friend’s House? (1987); Life, and Nothing More… (1992); Taste of Cherry (1997); The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); and Like Someone in Love (2012). Across these three levels or iterations, I suggest, Kiarostami remains fascinated with the challenge, price, inevitability and opportunity of death at the everyday level – be it large and definite or small and multiple. These deaths – themselves usually inflicting countless repetitions and variations as the given scene and film goes on – occur, in my experience, as imminent: always possible and even highly likely to occur at any moment, without warning and thereby a phenomenon of everyday life and its often-banal minutiae. Following on from this, these deaths also operate in an entirely immanent way: felt less as events that can only possibly be understood through metaphysical or religious frameworks, but rather as very much ‘present’, material facts that nonetheless remain ungraspable.
In light of the above, there is only one life portrayed in these films: that which we see played out on screen and experience ourselves, facing multiple deaths at every moment. But, these ‘everyday’, non-transcendental deaths are not thereby less mysterious or resonant. Quite the contrary. As a result, while there is only one life, it is always pregnant with potential for unpredictable newness. For this remarkably generative yet forever challenging cinema, that opportunity only seems viable once we engage with the omnipresent spectre of death, in both its large and smaller, ‘real’ and cinematic, everyday manifestations.
Death’s Spectre – Reality, Theme, Suggestion
No matter how many subsequent masterpieces by Kiarostami you have seen, the comparably ‘simple’ Where is the Friend’s House? retains its enigmatic power, encapsulating Kiarostami’s primary concerns and filmmaking challenges. The theme of death here is not explicitly stated, but becomes subtly impactful across human, spatial and experiential planes. Death is framed via two old men encountered by the young protagonist, Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpou), as he desperately attempts to return his friend’s homework book: his grandfather and then, more importantly, a seemingly older man in the neighbouring village who helps him on his increasingly strange journey. These figures represent a generation of fading patriarchs who feel their traditional approaches to life and profession have been passed over, and seem bitter at what they perceive as young people’s lack of interest in and respect for their work and values.
As the only person to speak in any substantive or friendly way with Ahmed during his quest to find his friend’s house in the seemingly unfamiliar neighbouring village – a sequence that takes up the majority of the film’s running time – the frail, elderly stranger becomes strongly associated with this unfamiliar space, which as it grows dark becomes ghostly and subtly menacing. Eventually, Ahmed is unable to bring himself to deliver the book, despite seeming to arrive at the correct address thanks to his old companion’s help, apparently due to becoming scared in the deserted street. As he slowly traverses the village’s strange, increasingly shrouded labyrinthine thoroughfares and alleyways with the old man, these take on a spectral death- or tomb-like appearance. However, if the space itself is vaguely threatening, the man’s comparably benign and warm presence alters Ahmed’s overall experience. Once he returns home and decides to complete his friend’s homework himself, a strong wind – which the film has associated with the deserted village and its vague sense of death – suddenly blows open the adjacent window, revealing sheets billowing on the washing line outside, an image suggesting his mysterious brush with mortality has become an embodied experience. As Hossein Sabzian, the protagonist of Kiarostami’s next feature, Close-Up (1990), describes his experience of a film by the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf: It is now a part of him.
The following film in what some critics describe as the ‘Koker Trilogy’ – starting with Where is the Friend’s House? and completed by Through the Olive Trees (1994) for being set in the Koker region – Life and Nothing More… confronts the reality of death head on. Following the devastating 1990 earthquake in northern Iran, resulting in the deaths of between 30,000 and 50,000 people, Kiarostami sought to find the villagers featured on screen in Where is the Friend’s House? The result is a film about the search of a director (played by Far had Kheradmand) for the earlier film’s actors. Life and Nothing More… is largely comprised of the protagonist (effectively Kiarostami’s on-screen double) and his son driving through the devastated landscape, searching for Koker, Babek Ahmedpou (the actor who played Ahmed) and others from the previous film. At every turn, they find survivors whose entire families have been killed, their houses destroyed, while somehow finding ways to summon the will to survive and plan ahead. Notably, one young man tells Kheradmand/Kiarostami/the viewer that he got married immediately following the earthquake despite nearly all his and his wife’s family members being killed. Frequently, the two Tehran visitors to the region are simply silent witnesses to a quiet miracle of resilience, until the son joins some homeless survivors to watch a soccer game on a makeshift screen while the father continues his search for a viable road to Koker. On more than one occasion in the film death is described as a ravaging wolf – a remarkable force of monstrous but earthly nature – which takes away life seemingly at random. But the survivors don’t seem to be intimidated as they try to rebuild their own lives.
The ‘precariousness of life’ is addressed in a much more intimate, personal way in Taste of Cherry, which co-won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. In this film another seemingly privileged man loosely representative of Kiarostami’s own class, known only as Mr. Badii (played by Kiarostami’s friend, the non-actor Homayoun Ershadi), drives across the dusty foothills outside Tehran searching – we eventually find out, after much delay – for someone to agree to bury his body after he has committed suicide. The film appears to end with Badii eventually finding a man who will do the job, following which he appears to take some tablets and lie down in his carefully prepared open-air grave on a hillside. This is followed by a much-discussed coda, shot on degraded video (the remainder of the film is shot on 35mm celluloid), showing Badii/Ershadi alive and well, hanging around while Kiarostami himself is seen directing what seems to be a sound take. The season of this final sequence looks like spring, with grass and flowers now covering what has been barren earth throughout the film.
Much has been written about Taste of Cherry’s treatment of death, with critics frequently seeking to ague that the film is actually a hymn to life, a journey through one man’s ‘dark night of the soul’ before he is brought back to realise the pleasure of life thanks a monologue told by Bagheri, the figure – whose profession is that of taxidermist – that agrees to help him in his macabre quest, about how the presence and taste of berries (or ‘cherries’) saved him from his own brush with the suicidal void. Yet Badii never shows any indication of being moved by Bagheri’s tale, and appears to go ahead with his plan. Bagheri comes across as a rather magical figure, meanwhile, suddenly present in Badii’s car having already seemingly agreed to help. Stressing the ‘taste of cherries’ speech, critics commonly treat the film as not ultimately being about a successful suicide. The final sequence, thereby, is often described as affirming a kind of ‘cinema heaven’ for showing the glory of filmmaking but also because Badii (or at least Ershadi) is clearly far from dead, while soldiers sit on the suddenly green hills with flowers in their hands. Yet for this viewer, Taste of Cherry remains devastating indeed, charting with quite some relentlessness a dark night of the soul that never actually abates as such, but the sublime thematic-aesthetic address of which is interrupted by the film’s reflexive conclusion. There is no indication that Badii’s various passengers’ arguments throughout the film against suicide – the joys of earthly pleasure and taste, but also religious and ethical oppositions – have any positive impact on him at all. Whether they do for the viewer, is naturally another question.
The Wind Will Carry Us is a less obviously ‘dark’ but no less substantial reflection on the constant presence of death. Here another educated professional – now overtly associated with the media industry, a television documentary producer – journeys outside Tehran, this time to the Kurdish region of far northern Iran, searching not for his own death but the chance to document someone else’s. Behzad (Behzad Dorani) and his TV crew arrive in the remote village in the hope of filming an exotic death ritual supposedly practiced according to local custom. For the duration of the film he waits, at first with his colleagues (who we never properly see, only hear) and then alone once they give up and return to Tehran, for an old woman to die so that he can record and relay the resulting ritual to the ‘civilised’ viewers of his TV network. This waiting is ultimately in vain, as she appears to die when he misses the chance to film anything (for one thing, the crew have taken the equipment home), merely snapping a few photographs – which he has repeatedly been told by a local woman not to do – of possible mourners as he quickly drives off, fleeing the village. The film is in these ways less about death itself than our protagonist’s desire to chart its colorful cultural treatment in this remote, ‘undeveloped’ and unique corner of Iran. He is, nonetheless, regarded by many critical commentators as having learnt a great lesson by the time he leaves, Behzad’s cosmopolitan impatience and insensitivity now very much chastened, finding new respect for the ‘otherness’ he has encountered, and letting go of his desire to possess reality via filming it in favour of a more elevated ‘ethical’ awareness. I find little in the film itself to support this kind of reading, instead feeling that Behzad’s attitudes towards death, Iran’s poor and less ‘modern’, remote populations remain largely unchanged. The profound challenge of death never seems approached by this man, just that of seeking to exploit its anthropological or ethnographic trappings for those much more directly in touch with its reality and effects.
The director’s final completed feature is the seemingly modest but masterful French-Japanese production, Like Someone in Love, the second of Kiarostami’s films made outside Iran (following the French-Italian Certified Copy in 2010). This Tokyo-set film’s primary engagement with death is through the pivotal presence of octogenarian semi-retired sociology professor Watanabe Takashi (Okuno Tadashi), who has an ambiguous encounter with young student and part-time escort Akiko (Takanashi Rin). Watanabe and Akiko’s real-life grandmother – who is only ever glimpsed (though we can't be entirely sure that it is her we see) in a long moving shot from Akiko’s taxi as it drives by on the way to Watanabe’s flat – represent an older Japanese generation facing its own death. Akiko’s interlude with one of its representatives and his figuration of death plays out like a relatively benign yet also subtly profound experience. Meanwhile her violently suspicious and jealous boyfriend, Noriaki, turns out to embody the most immediate and literal threat, when he presumably assaults Akiko (an act we do not see) and then throws a brick into Watanabe’s window, smashing it and felling the old man while the already bloodied Akiko cowers inside.
Like Someone in Love is ultimately a film about the spectre of death both through the key role of men, young and old, especially the in some ways friendly ghost-like figure of Watanabe (his flat and overall demeanor are somehow rather magical and unreal, at times coming across like a figure from a Miyazaki Hayao film), but also in its rather hopeless portrayal of young people’s lot in modern Japan and beyond when it comes to sustaining personal relationships, employment, and life choices. It is to this more prosaic, everyday social and interpersonal level that I now turn.
Social and Interpersonal Deaths – Everyday, Multiple, Imminent
Up to this point I have focused on the way Kiarostami’s films portray and approach the spectre of death as a literal reality, theme, or highly suggestive figuration. On this first level, death is usually portrayed as singular – one’s own demise or that of others – and in the case of Life and Nothing More…, on a mass scale. In the remaining two sections I will explore how in addition to, beneath, yet also transcending this most direct iteration and address, ‘second’ and ‘third’ deaths play out in these films on the social and the cinematic planes, to multiple effect.
Before the partially silent scenes in the neighbouring village, mixed with poetic, spectral ruminations by the old man, the first half of Where is the Friend’s House? features a lot of talk, usually in the form of arguments, miscommunication and questions gone unanswered. Ahmed cannot get his mother, in a masterful scene of domestic discord and disconnection, to even listen to his concerns about the workbook he so desperately wants to return to its rightful owner. Either repeating that he needs to do his chores or simply ignoring him altogether, like so many adults in Kiarostami’s films, the mother in this scene appears incapable of seeing and hearing outside such pragmatic and rules-based considerations. This forces her son to make an ethical choice between obeying his parents and doing what he thinks is more important. The subsequent argument with his grandfather out on the street is similarly frustrating, when the old man sends Ahmed on a pointless errand rather than taking seriously and even addressing his urgently stated problem. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man nearby, who Ahmed thinks may be his friend’s father and thereby key to returning the book, never answers the boy’s increasingly desperate questions or even acknowledges his presence.
The other people Ahmed meets in this apparently alien social world of adults are no more helpful. In one case a very old woman complains repeatedly about the boy’s insistent nagging for her help. Meanwhile, in the film’s first and final schoolroom scenes, the boys’ teacher appears to exercise what to many eyes would be seen as an insufficiently respectful attitude to his young students, once again entirely unreceptive to their concerns. The only consistently friendly and helpful character throughout the film remains the old man, a rather ghostly and magical figure associated with the shadowy and increasingly oneiric environment of the village at night, with the past and with death. Ahmed’s abrasive relationships with other unambiguously living adult characters give this and other Kiarostami films a dimension of social critique, a subtly subversive portrayal of social and interpersonal relationships in Iran and beyond. In this way, Where is the Friend’s House? is a film about failure and death on the level of the everyday, including the familial, no matter how mysterious and dream-like the film becomes. When Ahmed eventually finds a way to solve his problem, this moment coincides with another magical death-aligned event upon the giant gust of wind blowing open a window.
If Life and Nothing More… is overt in its treatment of ‘real’ death, the film appears on the surface to be less directly concerned with charting the social and psychological failures and everyday deaths seen in Where is the Friend’s House? and many other Kiarostami films. Nevertheless, the father and son show signs of interpersonal disconnect, their relationship and identities marked as strikingly urban compared to everyone else they encounter. A theme is evoked here that the director would explore more forcefully in future work: the stark alterity felt between modern city-dwellers and the country’s rural (usually northern) population. These locals are interested in the Tehran visitors' presence and search, seeming to know Where is the Friend’s House?, and Kheradmand/Kiarostami comes across as relatively respectful of them and sympathetic to the multiple tragedies on screen. The local teenagers in particular seem amused by the on- and perhaps off-screen filmmaker, while remaining opaque and rather resistant throughout to his/our camera and gaze. Yet while the 'modern' visitors from another class and world may seem less 'ham-fisted' in their presence and behaviour when visiting ‘backward’ regions than in future films, the substantial communication, experiential, and cultural impasse seems unbridgeable, as seen through the never-ending series of small social deaths caused and defined in large part by strongly felt – but usually unremarked upon by those on screen – imbalances of socioeconomic and 'civilisational' power.
Social, interpersonal and communication failure is central to Taste of Cherry, just as the theme of death is enunciated via a much more interior and intimate account of a man who appears to desire his own death. The disconnection he feels with the world around him is extreme, and despite our getting to experience a sense of his personal abyss – made surprisingly literal by the remarkable, almost wordless quarry sequence at the heart of the film, yet usually passed over in critical appreciations, where the images seem to slip over into a kind of expressionism (although the film has been flirting with this register all along) – viewers are also alienated from Mr. Badii, whose first name we never learn, through our never discovering why he wants to die.The multiple social failures and ‘deaths’ that pepper the narrative as he tries to convince locals to assist him, bring to prominent light vast disparities of socioeconomic class, ethnicity and religion. With rare exceptions, Badii is alienated from the world as he drives through it in his Land Rover (marking him more clearly as middle-class), but when he gives someone else a lift, the result is not an increased sense of engagement and co-presence. This film is resolutely confronting when it comes to the treatment of death per se. But it is no less so on the highly connected levels of ongoing social and interpersonal deaths that have very likely caused Badii to consider suicide in the first place.
The Wind Will Carry Us continues the increased sense of social critique so carefully integrated within the previous film, but this time with a lighter touch (in certain ways the film plays like a comedy). The social and interpersonal failures are here no less severe, if less ‘heavy’ in treatment. Although perhaps believing he has an avuncular relationship with the young boy who initially acts as a guide to the Kurdish village, Behzad comes to sense the young go-between does not trust his motives. (“Do you think I’m a bad man?” he eventually asks, although – perhaps tellingly – we learn in a making-of documentary that it is actually Kiarostami who asks the question off screen.) His behaviour toward others in the village is not appalling perhaps, but certainly comes across as insensitive and mainly self-centered. This is most obviously the case in the sequence where he seeks out a local workman’s teenage fiancée to ask her for milk, resulting in the much commented on and very awkward underground milking scene when Behzad speaks in an inappropriate way to the young woman, citing the famous controversial female writer and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad’s poems on the themes of death and desire. The scene remains in near dark throughout, with the girl not once turning to show her face to the protagonist, camera, filmmaker or viewer.
When it comes to Behzad’s own desire to document the exotic death ritual he has come to film, a local schoolteacher offers a blunt critique of the visitor’s motivations to record this ‘backward otherness’ for the benefit of Iran’s metropolitan television viewers. Finally, upon leaving the village, rather than recording the ritual, or – as suggested above – learning anything too substantial or humbling through his encounter with marked class, ethnic, religious and cultural alterity, the primary experience we seem to have witnessed is a series of deaths at the level of the social, and with the boy particularly, Behzad’s attempts to forge a perhaps more meaningful interpersonal relationship. There is little evidence for anything other than entirely purpose-driven instrumental motivation behind his attempts to befriend the charming but increasingly suspicious local. Rather, as with the other villagers, he seems increasingly taken aback at and unimpressed by the visiting man from Tehran the locals first respectfully called ‘Engineer’.
Working in an entirely different social and cultural context (although not for the first time), you might expect Kiarostami to downplay the role of social and interpersonal failure in Like Someone in Love. However, the film is just as littered with these everyday, ongoing deaths as his previous work. The first scene of the film begins with a largely off-screen phone call between Akiko and her quasi-estranged boyfriend, presenting interpersonal relationships from the start as rather corrupted by a modern cosmopolitan environment such as Tokyo, technology, capital and a modern/traditional disconnect of relationship rules and gender roles. Kiarostami is not, however, harking back to some pre-modern world. The conservative views about men and women espoused by Noriaki come across in the film as dysfunctional and out of step with reality, as does his belief in the efficacy of marriage for young people as a way to solve their problems. Interestingly, these beliefs are explicitly questioned by none other than the older generation’s representative in the film, Watanabe, in a lengthy and awkward conversation between the two men from radically different generations inside the latter’s car as they wait for Akiko to return from an exam. When Noriaki’s desperate belief in tradition and his desire to ‘possess’ a woman by making her his wife ultimately leads to violence, the film does not appear to suggest that asserting conventional interpersonal relationships is an answer to contemporary social and existential alienation or failure. The oppressive role of gender is also foregrounded by the fact that Akiko feels under the thumb of both Noriaki and her pimp, Hiroshi – who comes across as a regular boss, friendly enough and even appearing a little sympathetic but ultimately unbending. Social and interpersonal death on the more historical side when it comes to family, meanwhile, is portrayed through the pathos of Akiko listening to her grandmother’s phone messages about wanting to meet her while visiting Tokyo from the countryside, then Akiko’s asking the taxi driver to circle the train station so she can glimpse her grandmother from afar as she waits increasingly without hope.
Finally, while Akiko and Watanabe establish a ‘pretend’ familial relationship (although as Certified Copy suggests so forcefully, perhaps we are never properly able to judge levels of authenticity when it come to relationships or art alike), the question of their possible sexual encounter remains unresolved. While the old man appears rather caring to his ‘granddaughter’, she comes across as very self-involved. The social and historical divide between an octogenarian man and a twenty-something Japanese woman in 2012 remains enormous. His attempts to make her feel ‘at home’ by preparing a special dish associated with the village where she grew up backfires when Akiko tells him she hates this soup that her grandmother used to force on her as a child (perhaps because it is too strong a reminder, just like the grandmother, of her rural origins). Ultimately, Like Someone in Love is about social, interpersonal, familial and historical failures or deaths, caused by unequal gender difference, capital, socioeconomic class and education (Noriaki has clearly completed less schooling than Watanabe and Akiko), as well as age. This is all played out on a relatively intimate field where once again performance is highly ambiguous. As with all these films, death’s spectre is present as a reality, an explicit theme, suggestion or figuration, but also as an imminent and immanent social or interpersonal phenomenon when it comes to everyday experience.
Audiovisual Death: Renewed Cinematic Life
So far, the idea of a spectre of death hanging over proceedings, or at the more everyday level when it comes to social and interpersonal experience, can give the impression of relentless bleakness. Yet the very same deaths – big-picture and small, as I have described – are also central to this cinema’s very real pleasures, creativity, and, at every turn, its proper sense of intensely valuable, renewed life. It is in the openings generated by the films’ charting of these multiple deaths and failures that we find the true resonance and genuinely life-affirming, but always challenging, impact of Kiarostami’s cinema.
For all these films’ subtlety, even at times their seeming passivity, this director’s work has made us rethink what a feature film is, how it is made, what it looks and sounds like, what relationships it engenders with an audience and how it relates to, or renders, the real world. This involves an assault – at times quiet and insidious and at others very strongly felt, but always bold – on many of the conventions upon which films are commonly made, watched and understood. For everything Kiarostami does not allow us to see, for every denial of information or the gaze per se through obscuring our vision within a shot, blocking sufficient audio access to a conversation, or inflicting upon the viewer a substantial ‘gap’ through a cut that marks an ellipsis where you would usually expect a key dramatic or knowledge-enabling scene to occur, for all the films’ narrative refusals, the willing viewer partakes in an experience of gain and renewal. Death remains, but as inextricably connected to creativity, opportunity, and life, at the level of the everyday and of cinema.
Despite appearing on the surface to be more narratively grounded, featuring a child protagonist and a more unambiguously happy conclusion, Where is the Friend’s House? is a subtly radical film that inflicts a series of deaths on the feature film’s formal conventions. The emphasis on social and interpersonal conflict addressed above results in some lengthy and ‘repetitive’ scenes, in which little or no narrative progress appears to take place. Yet the long, halting scene between Ahmed and his mother is a miniature masterpiece for the way it spatially and temporally orchestrates the dynamics of its domestic scenario and rich observations on the level of human and cinematic performance. Here is a kind of realist cinema that in being so attuned to the tiny everyday failures of communication and understanding between people who should know each other intimately, becomes fragmentary, elliptical and circular.
The scenes with the old man occur entirely after dark and the film has now transformed from offering a beautifully framed and observed, muted but demanding realist aesthetic to a rather dream-like dimension enforced by comparably theatrical sound and image compositions marked by exaggerated lighting effects and multiple perspectival and graphic play with windows, doors, walls and passageways. (Along with parts of Taste of Cherry, this long sequence is the closest Kiarostami’s cinema ever gets to a kind of expressionism.) Such a gradual shift of register challenges us to account for what kind of cinema we are faced with here. But the long nocturnal section of the film – which, as with virtually all the scenes in the Iranian productions under discussion, takes place almost entirely outdoors – in which we feel a stretched, ‘excessive’ temporality and spatial expansion, is contrasted radically with a significant ellipsis that joins this long sequence to the scene where all of a sudden we see Ahmed back at home.
We never see a scene where Ahmed gets into trouble for arriving home so late (presumably without purchasing bread, the errand he had originally been sent on), which a viewer would likely expect in light of his mother’s irritated mood earlier. We simply see this same woman now with unprecedented affection coaxing her son to eat some dinner (everyone else seems to have long finished), while his thus-far unseen father sits opposite in unthreatening silence. Parental scorn is never shown, its possible eventuality lost in the death of Kiarostami’s cut. Instead of such a scene, we see the mysterious blowing open of a window by the wind next to Ahmed as he gets down to work, the return of the benign death motif. Our protagonist’s brush with figural and spatially suggestive death, plus all his momentary social and familial deaths, appears somehow incorporated into a developed sense of self. The sometimes difficult assaults on well-established filmmaking practices, offering formal-aesthetic challenges and innovations outside others that we may be familiar with from the long and thoroughly global history of progressive filmmaking, are – like the other deaths above – ultimately about opening up possibilities right in front us: the potential renewal of the only life we know and can have.
In more directly rendering actual death, or more precisely its immediate after-effects and the muted trauma of survivors, Life and Nothing More… commits its own unique violence at the level of audiovisual form, as closely allied with the post-apocalyptic mise en scène of very real tragedy. In this way, the film offers a fascinating entry in the long history of ‘rubble cinema’ (the most famous example of which remains Roberto Rossellini’s devastating 1947 masterpiece, Germany Year Zero). One of Kiarostami’s more drifting, ‘aimless’ works when it comes to narrative direction, the film starts once more as a kind of leisurely yet serious realist work. But it, too, eventually achieves a kind of transformation from ambiguous realism toward the graphic, as the scarred landscape and architecture increasingly take over the film. By the lengthy final image, a massive example of Kiarostami’s favourite ‘zigzag’ hillside road pattern carved out of the earth (first famously marked on a smaller scale by the path between the two villages in Where is the Friend’s House?), the drama becomes exponentially abstract. When the protagonist’s car makes a second and seemingly successful attempt to climb the steep incline that looks more like a wall on screen, we are left with this intensely graphic composition without learning whether he does make it to the very top and is then able to finally locate Koker or confirm the survival of people he knows. Life and Nothing More…, then, exemplifies Kiarostami’s cinematic challenge and gift at its end. Denying us so much – here especially much of a narrative, certainly any kind of resolution or knowledge – enables the offering of much more. Through the filmmaker’s special aesthetic form whereby realism gradually becomes – or more properly, reveals itself to be – graphic and to some degree abstract, as with the tragic reality we see on screen, death brings with it the possibility of new life.
Taste of Cherry likely remains Kiarostami’s boldest film, both at the level of thematic enunciation of the death drive (here both literally and figuratively so) and a now even more overtly reflexive formal-aesthetic address. Continuing on from the above film’s combination of realism, self-reflexivity and movement towards abstraction – all of which is further developed in Kiarostami’s intervening film, Through the Olive Trees (1994) – Taste of Cherry again starts out as a loosely realist work and now even more intimately, seen through the windows of a car driven by a figure clearly separated through glass, and class, and now marked by even more narrative attenuation. It takes an inordinate amount of time for the audience to realise what Mr. Badii is looking for, as the early scenes seem even more stretched out and unexplained than those of earlier films. When it reaches the quarry scene, all forward movement grinds to a halt for six minutes, an expanded temporal stretching in marked opposition to another of Kiarostami's marvelous elliptical cuts that immediately follows when Bagheri magically materialises in the car, heralded by the sound of a closing door (for another nearly four minutes we only hear him while the camera stays on Badii or his car as it moves through the landscape), apparently having already agreed to help.
The film’s most obviously radical gesture, its coda showing Kiarostami himself directing a scene that is not in the preceding film (unless it’s just some sound material to be dubbed over other footage), is seen by many Western critics as indicating a kind of joyous celebration of cinema’s magical powers – in this case the resurrection of a man who seemed to have killed himself. But in my experience, it has the effect of doubling down on our challenge as viewers. A ‘real’ death – which is of course merely a ‘cinema’ death – in the previous shots showing Badii lying in his grave and gradually closing his eyes, intercut with foreboding images of clouds accompanied by atmospheric weather and nature sounds, is followed by a second and more overtly artificial (yet also in another, reflexive sense in fact more ‘realistic’) cinematic death interrupting our poetic if literally and philosophically grim journey into the void: the violent pixels of degraded analog video from a ‘making-of’ documentary that seems to have slipped from the ‘extras’ of a DVD onto the end of the main feature. Both the 35mm and video endings are exhilarating on the level of filmmaking, and much more so in concert. But their dual cinematic enunciations of death, ’real’ or cinematic, retain an immense cost just as they offer us real potential and immediate pleasure in the devastation. Once again, Kiarostami remains a richly generative filmmaker, offering genuine newness and sense of possibility through his work’s formal violence and innovations. But this renewed sense of life and its possibilities comes at the near-constant cost of death.
Compared to Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us again carries itself rather more lightly when it comes to the new forms of cinematic life enabled by terminal cessation of familiar audiovisual forms. It may not offer a single moment as challenging or thrilling as the transference from night-time to ‘making-of’ video at the end of the previous film (or the sublime quarry scene). But testing repetition is on full display, with multiple trips up yet another zigzag hill causing as much annoyance as quiet humour among viewers, as Behzad tries to reach higher ground enabling sufficient mobile phone reception to speak with his boss at his Tehran network headquarters. (In reality, there would have been no reception anywhere in the region.) The whole film continues to throw challenges out to the audience, in particular frustrating access to knowledge, including on the most basic level when it comes to actually being able to see particular characters.
The by now patented zigzag motif that so strikingly concluded Life and Nothing More… on a highly graphic emphasis is referenced at the start of The Wind Will Carry Us. For five full minutes the viewer watches a car way in the distance as it travels a dirt road traversing this time decidedly beautiful ochre-coloured hills, broken up with occasional trees and farmland, as we hear in audio close-up a group of Tehran TV employees – all but one of which we will never actually see in the film – talk about how to find this village where they hope to film the local Kurdish ritual. Here Kiarostami never really approaches the kind of realism at least in part invoked in his earlier films. More precisely, a deceptive – or you could say dishonest – version of realism is presented, with the film’s main mise en scène, the Kurdish village, being painted and cleaned up by Kiarostami’s crew before the shoot. That we do no get to see some of the characters in the film, remaining quite literally just ‘speaking parts’, is one manifistation of an epistemological undermining that runs throughout Kiarostami’s cinema. The most striking instance remains the much-commented on near-dark cellar scene in which Behzad visits the teenage girl to ask for milk – really, just an excuse to try and see her.
With the protagonist’s increased insensitivity and forceful desire to get a proper look at the young woman, and the film’s denial of such a gaze, the cellar scene makes clear that The Wind Will Carry Us is Kiarostami’s most trenchant piece of reflexive cinema when it comes to what film theorists used to call ‘auto-critique’, further undermining cinema’s and therefore our gaze while at the same time implicating himself, film, and audience in difficult ethical questions around vision and power. In this instance we are also prompted to ask what it means for cosmopolitan audiences – both in Iran and perhaps even more so beyond – to watch films made by educated, metropolitan filmmakers set in ‘exotic’ rural locales and cultures. The repeated motif of being denied the gaze as allied to both knowledge and desire – the death of our habitual experience and demand to gain audiovisual access to key information and privileged moments in a narrative drama – is continued through to the ultimate killing-off by the film of our protagonist’s plan to record death, or at least its immediate aftermath. The Wind Will Carry Us demonstrates how paradoxical this director’s cinema really is. On paper it sounds like a frustrating experience, an almost perverse and repetitive denial of the very things that usually provide a film’s audience its primary enjoyment. Yet this is the most purely beautiful and open of all the director’s works, generating immense, relatively light-on-its-feet pleasure and newness out of what remains a series of subtle yet trenchant cinematic deathblows. Meanwhile, away from the camera itself – both Behzad’s and Kiarostami’s – an actual death might occur far off screen.
In most respects, Like Someone in Love embodies less radical filmmaking than the previous films under discussion, especially the last two. Nevertheless, this film’s rumination on death as described earlier is delivered via an audiovisual – and now entirely digital – form that inflicts its own distinct, generative violence. With the very first scene, Kiarostami delivers a master class in composition, framing, sound design and then editing, at least when it comes to his own stylistic tendencies. The main shot of the crowded bar is so full of interesting but also rather confusing details of light and graphic components, with a distinct lack of depth, that it approaches cubism. Over, or under, this image we hear Akiko in close-up on the phone to her boyfriend (whose voice we do not hear), lying to him about her location. Kiarostami makes no effort to match the wide shot of the bar with the subsequent medium-close ups of Akiko framed against a window overlooking the street. (The shots could well be taken in different locations.) When Hiroshi pressures her into taking what he calls an important job (to visit Watanabe) and she refuses, after repeated entreaties we hear her shout very loudly in protest at his badgering. But the viewer only hears the outburst, with the camera still on Hiroshi and the bar. When the film subsequently cuts to Akiko, her face bears no marks of the intense emotion we have just heard. It is like the shouting never happened.
Once she is on her way in the taxi, after asking the driver to circle the train station so as to see her grandmother from afar, on the first pass the only chance the viewer has of glimpsing the old woman is dashed when a van interrupts our view just when the taxi gets relatively close. The second rotation, as requested by Akiko to the driver, enables a better view but further back. Another characteristic, and more radical, denial of vision is the elliptical cut (less forceful but akin to that bridging the quarry scene and Bagheri’s first audio-only appearance in Taste of Cherry) between when we see Akiko asleep in Watanabe’s bed and then the two of them in his car the following morning. He appears to resist her entreaties to come to bed the night before, wanting instead to feed her the specially prepared regional soup, but we can never be sure. By the time this provisional new grandfather and granddaughter partnership have banded together in protecting Akiko from Noriaki, the viewer is no closer to resolving exactly who and what we are seeing on screen. The ambiguities of performance that have always fascinated Kiarostami when it comes to character, role and actor (again, Certified Copy is his most sustained essay on this topic), but also the film itself and its relationship to a given reality, here reach a violent conclusion. While Like Someone in Love has been relatively subdued up to now, the final assault by Noriaki on this potential new family unit is almost reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s work in its unpredictable and apparently sustained outburst of violence with no clear solution for the victims, Noriaki bearing down on them with relentless and seemingly unstoppable force, culminating with the smashing of Watanabe’s window. What follows is, as ever, very much an open question.
Kiarostami ends his feature film career, then, with a gesture that embodies very much what I have been discussing. Death – here that represented by Watanabe himself, but also the social and interpersonal death of a relationship and the definitions and justifications thereof in the ever later modern world of mass commodification and human life choices within our increasingly global late capitalism – is rendered by way of both cinematic and also ultimately very ‘real’ violence, a dual cessation of the traditional expectations we may still bring to a film. Frustrated perhaps by the familiar denials and blockages, the huge gaps where there should be information, the audience finally experiences another and now more insistent and confronting filmic death that viciously assaults the new, makeshift and inherently ambiguous cross-generational family unit in front of us by way of a rectangular screen being smashed from out of frame, from the social reality that threateningly lurks outside, a screen upon or through which we habitually seek to see and know the world.
 Where is the Friend’s House (Khane-ye doust kodjast?, Iran 1987); Life, and Nothing More… (Zendegi va digar hich, Iran 1992); Taste of Cherry (Ta'm e guilass, Iran/France 1997); The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran/France 1999); and, Like Someone in Love (Raiku Samuwan In Rabu, Japan/France 2012). I have concentrated on these five films due to the fact that death is an especially important presence on the first, more explicit level. Taken in a more metaphorical way, one can easily read Kiarostami’s other films as also very much fascinated with death. Certainly the social and cinematic deaths I emphasise in this article are just as important across his work. In Through the Olive Trees (Zīr-e Derakhtān-e Zeytūn 1994), the earthquake explicitly addressed in Life, and Nothing More… continues to have its effects, if somewhat receded in time. More importantly, the film charts the intimate, and sometimes humiliating social and interpersonal deaths inherent to class and gender differences in rural Iran, especially as seen in the desperate attempts of a poor boy to get a girl from a more educated family to speak to him with a view to marriage. Filmic death is just as important here too, nowhere more so – in my reading at least (which differs from much Western response to the film) – the ending. (For details, see my lengthy article,‘Driving into the Void: Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry’, Journal of Humanistics And Social Sciences, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2012, pp. 1-27, available with added stills from the films here.) The masterful Close-Up (Klūzāp, nemā-ye nazdīk, 1990) can be seen as invoking death through the spiritual crisis of the protagonist, who feels he literally cannot live without the art of cinema. Even more palpable, and inherently connected to this, is the multiple deaths inherent to his deep social and interpersonal alienation resulting from class, family breakdown, and existential malaise. Famously, the film also inflicts its own complicating deaths upon the loose documentary form it employs, entailing escalating slippages of performance and time-line, and culminating with what is surely a deliberate ‘sabotaging’ of the lapel microphone by Kiarostami so that the viewer is denied the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing what would likely be a dramatically and emotionally cathartic conversation between the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makmbalbaf and his ‘impersonator’, Hossein Sabzian, when the former picks the latter up from prison on his motorbike. Kiarostami’s first prominent experiments with digital video offer new dimensions to the pattern I have been describing. On one level, Ten (2002) charts the ‘death’ of a liberal, secular Tehran middle class, particularly its women, which has lost patience and hope for genuine progressive change after two long decades of post-Revolutionary theocratic government. More immediately, the film charts in a literally claustrophobic way multiple social and interpersonal deaths, particularly that between a mother and her seemingly estranged son. The role of Kiarostami’s cinematic death is here radical indeed, a feature film that takes place entirely inside a woman’s car, using an unglamorous ‘one shot per scene’ format with no reverse shots, plus (in sharp opposition to his technique with Taste of Cherry) that the director was usually not present in the car during the shoot. Meanwhile, maintaining the single-shot technique to far more extreme ends, Five (Panj, 2003), originally made for gallery installation, pulls the opposite trick. Death is here suggested through the fact that the only human presence is a group of old men, and more metaphorically via the centerpiece sequence of dogs on a beach and the lengthy final image set entirely at night. The social-interpersonal (and thereby political) dimension thus downplayed, cinematic death is here in abundance through apparent cessation of narrative itself (even though each section, perhaps especially the first shot that follows flotsam bobbing around in the water, and the dogs sequence, can be seen as Kiarostami narratives in extreme miniature), the ultimate explosion of a fiction/documentary distinction, and – through being an installation work heralding a decade’s work away from commercial film production – perhaps a kind of ‘death of cinema’. The director’s return to the feature film, the European production Certified Copy (Copie conforme, 2010), concerns death on the thematic level of ‘the original’, a sacred post-Renaissance idea that the male protagonist and film interrogate and undermine in myriad ways. This concept is largely played out on the level of the unique committed adult relationship, or question thereof, and perhaps also Italy itself seen as a giant open-air museum or preserved ‘tomb’ for Western culture. More urgently, the film’s charting of an is-it-or-isn’t-it central couple – in its fragile and rocky genesis, or final death-throes – is riddled with intimate social and interpersonal deaths as the protagonists constantly misunderstand and argue with each other. If cinematic death is here perhaps not as overt as in some of Kiarostami's work, hand in hand with the escalating slippage of performance for the central ‘couple’ remains the vertiginous slippage and basic question of narrative, and thereby this commercially distributed film itself.  Some readers will recognise that the title of my essay inverts that of a fine 1996 French film by the great Chilean expat filmmaker, Raúl Ruiz, Three Lives and Only One Death (Trois vies et une seule mort). Ruiz, an atheist, nevertheless liked to play with cinema’s potential for suggestive metaphysical sleights of hand, in this case the notion of three characters with separate lives (played by the same actor) experiencing a singular concurrent death. Kiarostami (for what it’s worth, to the best of my knowledge also an unbeliever) offers us a cinema that is rather the opposite. I do not, however, wish to suggest my reading of the films is somehow absolute, or dismissive of contextual detail at the production or reception end. Like all viewers, and film scholars, I approach cinema from a distinct experience and perspective while also being mindful of the sometimes very different context of a film’s production and setting. I do not dismiss the fact that certainly the social and cultural situations in which most of Kiarostami’s films are set may well be loosely religious. Yet the films themselves show us that the mystery of the multiple deaths I chart, their insidious violence and generative potential, can be approached on entirely secular grounds. While my aim here is not to reject per se religious or spiritualist readings of the films, it should also be pointed out that many Western critics have sought to see Kiarostami’s Iranian films through a loosely metaphysical or religious, and ethically pedagogical, lens. (I address this complicated issue in the 2012 article cited above.)  Kiarostami never seemed to think the three films should be seen as a trilogy. Interestingly, he argued instead that the second two should perhaps be seen together with the subsequent Taste of Cherry for addressing the ‘precariousness of life’.  This character and conversation will be replayed again in the form of a scene in the process of being filmed by yet another on-screen Kiarostami surrogate in Through the Olive Trees. It is in fact shown multiple times, with minor variations of performance, as the young man’s new wife refuses to say the lines as written. (This is seemingly due to her refusing to speak directly to the actor playing her husband in the film, who seeks her hand in marriage in real life – a silence he suspects is due to his being from a lower, uneducated class.)  The agents of power and ultimately death are all notably male in this film (as with the Iranian productions), in ways that go from the seemingly benign and grandfather-like to the oppressive and then threatening, through violence and ambiguity – from Watanabe, his old acquaintance and now Akiko’s pimp, Hiroshi, and more seriously Noriaki. There is also, however, the nosey, vaguely threatening and ghostly, if also slightly absurd, voyeuristic figure of Watanabe’s neighbour, a woman apparently once in love with him and now increasingly bitter at his more successful life, who seems to spend her time looking out the window.  Also, should we discover (as is the case) that Kiarostami shot all the extensive conversation scenes in the car with just himself – either driving or sitting in the passenger seat as appropriate for the scene – and one of the actors, conversing and trying to manipulate them into saying certain things before editing the footage together to give the illusion of a conversation between two ‘characters’, our sense of the various deaths inflicted by this filmmaker on the conventions of filmmaking – now at the production end – offers yet another dimension, this time including ethical considerations.  As with the filming techniques used for Taste of Cherry, this altering of the Kurdish village for the purposes of The Wind Will Carry Us raises ethical questions, this time concerning what negotiation was entered into with the locals, and the obvious imbalance of resources, money, and power involved.