Life and Nothing More

Lifesaver: Babek Ahmed Poor in Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House?

Let's start with some simple questions: Do American audiences have any interest in contemplative films? Films that demand the viewer's patience and participation? Films that privilege calm over chaos, the ordinary over the "exciting," the rule over the exception? Do American audiences have any interest in films such as Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House?, which follows an 8-year-old boy on his marathon journey to return a notebook to his classmate? Or Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, a similarly spare portrait of a man's prolonged search for someone to help carry out his last wishes?

Alas, those questions have yet to be answered. When Film Comment recently polled 83 critics, curators, and exhibitors to determine the best unreleased foreign films of the decade, Kiarostami earned the most votes of any director for his Close-Up and And Life Goes On. But the fact remains that the only way to see these films is at rare retrospectives like the Walker Art Center's current showcase of five features and four shorts by the auteur. So who knows whether these movies are unreleasable to commercial theaters? More to the point: Who's to say whether it's the U.S. moviegoer's taste or his inexperience that's to blame for Miramax's refusal to release Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees in more than a few cities (and not ours) for a mere week in each spot?

As it happens, Kiarostami's films are themselves investigations of questions that appear simple but aren't, exploring issues that seem reducible to either/or choices--to be or not to be, per Taste of Cherry--but which pass undecided. And maybe that's the reason they don't fit too snugly into our quick-fix film culture: Ambiguity isn't an easy sale. In Kiarostami's thrillingly complex Close-Up (screening Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m.), which tells the true story of an impoverished Teheran movie-lover who passes himself off as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, we see a newspaper headline that reads, "Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested." But the movie's own tale is far more complicated, and so is the telling. Kiarostami came across this story in the late '80s and, finding it fascinating, decided to film the man as he stood trial for fraudulently borrowing cab fare from a family of Makhmalbaf fans. Then the filmmaker convinced both the family and the impersonator to replay the fraud for his camera, thus filling in the gaps of his "documentary" while expanding the time frame of the story in real life. For Kiarostami, the presence of a camera radically alters the events in front of it; best to recognize that fact by using it to help change things for the better.

As the rare nonfiction piece that looks and acts like a narrative one, Close-Up isn't just a film full of ironies: It's a film about the irony that "realist" filmmaking doesn't always come closest to realism. Clearly, artifice has its real virtues, too. In Close-Up, the impersonator attains his dream of being an artist to such an extent that he actually gets paid to play himself in a movie. With Kiarostami's help, the man also fulfills his earlier promise to the family by giving them an up-close look at filmmaking. And what to make of the fact that the re-enacted scenes--including "private" glimpses of the impersonator in the moments before he's caught--appear even more raw and immediate than the real scene in the courtroom? Perhaps the ultimate point of Close-Up is that everyone is an actor, that no scene plays undirected.

And yet, the most powerful element of Kiarostami's films is their very real, natural sense of detail. Close-Up spends a full minute on a shot of an aerosol can rolling down a street, and the effect is hypnotic. Taste of Cherry is as sensory as it sounds, a film of such transfixing minimalism that the sound of honking car horns, tires on gravel, or birds flapping their wings seem to become its very subject. Where Is the Friend's House? (Wednesday at 7 p.m.) opens with a lengthy shot of a classroom door, until a stern second-grade teacher breaks the tranquility by marching through it to collect homework. Doors are symbolic in this film: An older man whom the young hero meets on the search for his friend's house describes having made doors for a living, and how some of his clients have begun replacing them with iron doors that they think will last a lifetime. "Well, how long is a lifetime?" the old man wonders. As in the ambiguously resolved Taste of Cherry, the results of the search in Friend's House are less important than the philosophies of those the searcher meets along the way. In this, Kiarostami's films are gentle odes to human contact, to the ways community is forged through trying circumstances.

The director's humanist approach to realism stretches back to the beginning of his career. Kiarostami started directing films in the late '60s, at the tail end of what's known as the Iranian New Wave. He was soon invited to create a filmmaking division of the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults--which, combined with an early admiration for Italian neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves, helps explain his interest in young protagonists, nonprofessional actors, and doc-like narratives. His first feature, The Traveler (1972), observed a young boy's complicated efforts to attend a soccer match that he ultimately sleeps through by accident. If Kiarostami's films often frustrate the viewer's desire for tidy closure, it's partly to make the point that you can't always get what you want, in movies or in life. This is a subject the director has known first-hand: Kiarostami originally intended Taste of Cherry to end with its protagonist's suicide, but opted to film a different conclusion in the wake of objections from Islamic fundamentalists. (In spite of this revision, the film remains banned in its native country.)

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.

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