Taste of Cherry

“Cinema seats make people lazy,” Abbas Kiarostami told the Guardian in a Cannes interview once. “They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life. When it comes to showing human beings, complexity and concealment are a crucial part of the character.”

For a masterful case in point, consider Taste of Cherry, the Iranian filmmaker’s elegantly minimal 1997 enigma about a man driving around the arid outskirts of Tehran trying to arrange his post-suicide burial. What a morbid scenario, you may think. Yes and no. Admittedly that summary is a bit of a spoiler, given Kiarostami’s coy strategy of exposition, but it takes nothing away from a film whose poetic force owes everything to the slow burn of its emotional and existential nuances. (Also, there’s a surprise ending.)

The man is played with great understated naturalism by Homayoun Ershadi. For most of the film, his face stays blank, a hauntingly empty vessel for whatever feeling might be projected by the audience — or by the equally understated people he tries to recruit for his task, including a young Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary student and a Turkish taxidermist.

Why the man wants to die is never fully articulated. Is his campaign merely a drawn-out plea for rescue? Either way, thanks to the confidently unhurried simplicity of Kiarostami’s scenario — this filmmaker specializes in people driving around and talking things over, yet leaving important things unsaid — the progress of the man’s quest becomes, in its way, an affirmation of human dignity. The movie is beautiful because it’s tactful.

Could that be an oblique political reflex? Over the years, Kiarostami and several countrymen colleagues have been variously stifled by Iran’s censorious political climate. It was only thanks to a last-minute reprieve from government censors that Taste of Cherry played at Cannes, where it went on to become the first-ever Iranian film to take that festival’s top prize.