But if Kiarostami's work bears strong traces of Italian neorealism, it also draws from the seemingly contradictory tradition of the French New Wave. Per the former, his films are comprised of the "dull" moments that would invariably be cut from conventional ones; but, deliberately calling attention to their making, these are neorealist films by someone who's well aware of the fact that cinema is built on artifice. Hence Kiarostami's metaphoric project of zooming back from his Friend's House to reveal its construction. And Life Goes On (Wednesday, February 25 at 7 p.m.) is a mock-documentary that fictionalizes Kiarostami's own investigation of whether the actors in Friend's House survived a real-life earthquake. Then, putting one last frame within the frame, Through the Olive Trees (Friday, February 20 at 7 p.m.) tells the true story of an actor's love for his co-star during the making of...yes, And Life Goes On. Completing this trilogy of art, life, and love, Olive Trees' breathtaking final shot is a re-enactment of the real couple's fate--and, paradoxically, one of the most beautifully directed scenes in all of cinema.
It's precisely this beauty that makes Kiarostami's films so much more than insular exercises in film-theory head-scratching--although that opportunity is certainly there for the taking. Impossible as it sounds, this is a director who seems naturally driven to abstraction. After winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year for Taste of Cherry, he described the surreal experience as if he were watching it on screen. "You become a spectator," he said, "and you see that a man in glasses goes up from his seat to the stage, takes the Palme, says something in very bad French and then comes down again. That's all."
And, in a way, that's life. Kiarostami's insistence on putting a frame around his vision keeps the freedom of interpretation--and the responsibility for it--in the hands of the viewer. To watch his films is to be reminded that life doesn't always offer definitive endings to its stories. And in the current arthouse climate, that sort of reminder is so rare that some of us are starved for it--which in turn reminds me of the Kiarostami character whose life was saved by such small pleasures as the taste of cherry.
The Abbas Kiarostami retrospective continues at Walker Art Center on Wednesday and Friday evenings through February 25. Kiarostami will appear at the Walker in dialogue with New York Film Festival director Richard Pena on Friday, February 27 at 8 p.m.; call 375-7622 for tickets and information.