Slowly but Surely

All of this and nothing: The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami's first narrative feature since being anointed the standard-bearer for the New Iranian Cinema, as well as Film Comment's "Director of the Decade" (no recounts necessary), is almost two years old. It has been snaking its way across North America as slowly as the wayward, rickety Jeep traversing the Kurdistan countryside in the film's first shot. As the cinephile has just passed the Siberian crane on the most endangered species list, Kiarostami's movie may be a test case: It's time to prove that there are still people left who care whether this sort of animal lives or dies.

Still, anyone looking for an easy intro to Middle Eastern humanism isn't apt to find it in the heady combination of art-film ambiguity, auteurist allegory, and cinematic minimalism that is The Wind Will Carry Us. Unlike Majid Majidi, whose Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise have made him the Chris Columbus of Iran, Kiarostami is quite a bit more than some weepy hack: During his 20-year career, he has developed from a primitive neorealist (last seen in 1987's Where Is the Friend's House?) to a modernist philosopher--even though neorealism drapes comfortably over his newer films like a moth-ridden sweater. Each movie by a given director naturally bears the weight of its predecessors, but for Kiarostami, who makes the cinema of substance seem so effortless, that weight is the proverbial hundred pounds of feathers.

The Wind Will Carry Us begins, simply, with four strangers riding into the Iranian outpost of Siah Dareh. Their purpose is unclear: The group's bossy leader, Berzad (Berzad Dourani), whom the villagers give the rationalist (and intentionally confusing) appellate of "the Engineer," befriends their guide, a cherublike tot excessively concerned with his studies. The Engineer can speak to his superior, Mrs. Godarzi, only by cell phone, and in order to get a clear signal he must frantically race to the cemetery hills above the town. There an unseen worker, Youssef, digs ditches for a communications project.

Eventually (or at least I think so), it's revealed that the interlopers are a camera crew awaiting the death of a century-old elder and the ancient ceremony of self-immolation that will, according to custom, follow. Unfortunately for the crew, the old woman refuses to expire, preferring instead to make amends with her estranged relatives. This sparks a revolt among the unseen crew (yes, they're unseen), and a crisis in the Engineer that he recognizes only after an accident clarifies the fallacies of his exploitative attitude. His character arc (yes, Iranian films have them, even if they're patterned like electrocardiograms) is toward a more empathetic approach to the villagers, and toward something like self-realization.

Depending on one's perspective (now there's an understatement), The Wind Will Carry Us is either a straightforward, fluid document of village life through the eyes of an outsider, or a symbolic minefield. (Or it's like eavesdropping on a phone call in which someone's talking to himself.) The movie takes Kiarostami's sense of "open narrative"--he calls it "a half-made film"--to its endpoint: Essentially, the director asks each member of his audience to assemble a body beginning with a single bone, which appears in the film as a femur tossed from out of frame to the Engineer. (The bone recalls 2001; The Wind Will Carry Us is just as cryptically gorgeous.) So much of our understanding of the movie comes from a layered soundscape that bubbles with life: from the roosters, crickets, and goats scattered throughout the village to the rushing water that climactically carries the bone to another space and time--not to mention the eleven characters whom we hear but don't see. A translucent portrait of a traditional community poised to leap straight into the 21st Century, The Wind Will Carry Us is one of those films about nothing that is also about everything.

An accomplished landscape photographer, Kiarostami films a series of striking transcendental clues to his mystery: the car slicing through the undeveloped countryside; an apple finding its way down a hill; the Engineer flipping a crawling turtle on its back in a casual act of awesome violence; and the descent into the darkness of what could be Plato's cave, where love and beauty hide in the form of Youssef's teenage girlfriend. By candlelight the Engineer recites a poem from the late Forough Farrokhzad, Iran's most famous female author, providing the film with its title: "Put your hands like a burning memory in my loving hands/And entrust your lips like a warm sense of life/To the caresses of loving lips/The wind will carry us away with it."

Although this is the first appearance of spoken verse in anything by Kiarostami, a recent issue of Cineaste has Iranian film expert Godfrey Cheshire providing a persuasive account of how the director's films can be read as Sufi texts. Cheshire also rightly suggests the importance of seeing Kiarostami's previous work before tackling Wind: The Palme d'Or-winning Taste of Cherry is an apt primer, as it likewise concerns an educated, middle-class thinker in a car heading nowhere, engaged in philosophical discourse with representatives of differing points of view. But where the protagonists of both Cherry and Wind are racked with frustration over the past, only the Engineer definitively chooses to live in the present.

A work at once intellectual and spiritual (these are exceptional qualities indeed in an era when most moviegoers get their metaphysics from The Matrix), The Wind Will Carry Us approximates--and appreciates--the world in a way that can be found only in the most rarefied works of art. In its Jacques Tati-style formalist visuals and its deadpan, Beckettesque manner of...well, waiting, it's also pretty damned funny. And, in its own topsy-turvy way, it's just as self-reflexive as the filmmaker's 1990 masterpiece Close-Up: With his omnipresent shades and his camera, the snap-happy Engineer reminds me of a certain Iranian director, and I'm not talking about Mohsen Makhmalbaf. As his crew begins to bitch about delays, it's clear that the Engineer is presiding over a film set gone wrong. It's no surprise, then, that when he's finally rewarded with his close-up, the Engineer is shaving, and the camera lens is his mirror.

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