.قضیه شکل اول… شکل دوم Qazieh-e shekl-e avval… shekl-e dovvom. (First Case, Second Case, 1979)

For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.


At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 45: طعم گيلاس… Ta’ame Gilas… (Taste of Cherry, 1997)

It’s a simple premise: a man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help fill in his grave after he commits suicide. In many ways it’s a simple film, too, or at least it’s very straightforward. Kiarostami points his camera at our protagonist Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he sits in the driving seat, and occasionally gets out. Sometimes there’s a reverse shot to see the man he’s talking to in the passenger seat, but it doesn’t overtly challenge one’s sense of film grammar. Except that in its very simplicity it hides a delicately shaded tale, which is largely unconcerned with the reasons for Badii’s actions, but more about the dialogue that happens as he looks for an accomplice. His interlocutors are working folk, migrants who’ve come to Iran from elsewhere (a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary, a Turkish taxidermist), of differing ages, and in each of them Badii (or the viewer perhaps) seems to find an implicit challenge to his decision. After talking about his conscript days with the Kurd (who, in one of the film’s occasional bursts of something approaching comedy, runs away), Badii stops to watch the soldiers jogging by as the sun sets, chanting the refrain Badii had just been nostalgically recalling. His later dialogue with the seminary touches on religious arguments against suicide and we see Badii standing by a quarry afterwards, his shadow commingling with the parched earth being churned up by the machines. And the taxidermist, who has agreed to help Badii, talks of the transformative power of nature (which is what the film’s title alludes to), and again there are these long, gorgeous shots of the dusty landscape, with Badii’s car moving across it, as he drives to the picturesque spot he’s picked out to dig his grave. I don’t feel there are any spoilers in recounting this, as the film’s power and grace comes from the way it unfolds and the dialogues Badii engages in, in the world-weary faces (surely Badii is some kind of stand in for the director), and in the unexpected self-reflexivity of the coda, which hardly seems to answer any questions, but also places them in a different context entirely. Its simplicity of form can be challenging (not every critic has warmed to it, though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its year), but it lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards, and its enfolding mystery drew me back to watch it a second time in two days. Full understanding may never be possible, but despite its premise, it’s a film that seems to deal with the simple wonders of being alive.

Criterion Extras: Aside from a really pointless biography page listing a handful of films, and a trailer, the only significant extra is a filmed interview with (the sunglasses-wearing) Kiarostami where he talks about a number of issues related to his filmmaking, which is interesting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Homayoun Payvar همایون پایور; Starring Homayoun Ershadi همایون ارشادی; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 1 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 July 2015, and at my home, London, Monday 27 July 2015).

Copie conforme (Certified Copy, 2010)

There’s a playful quality to all of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, but playful in the formal sense — of an artist grappling with and pushing at the boundaries of narrative, of how things are represented on screen and how those images are interpreted by the viewer. These are philosophical concerns, ontological questions about the nature of reality, which I cannot pretend to be an expert in. And if the idea of a philosophical cinema seems a little dry, well there are times in Copie conforme when it does seem that way, although I wouldn’t want to suggest this characterises Kiarostami’s filmmaking as a whole. I liked his most recent film Like Someone in Love, and his Iranian features are wonderful. However with this, his first non-Iranian feature film — it’s set in Italy and is in English, French and Italian — I find my attention wandering.

The structure of the film remains interesting. It follows James, an author played by opera singer William Shimell, who meets an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) while promoting his book in Italy. She drives him out to a pretty spot in the countryside while they chat. When they stop for a coffee, the lady serving them mistakes them for a married couple, which they play along with for a bit, but after leaving, the line between play and reality becomes blurred. Given that James’s book is entitled Certified Copy and it’s about the idea that the copy of a work of art can be just as valuable if not more so than the original, so the play between reality and fiction in their personal lives becomes a focus for the film. In fact, hints of this married status permeate the film from the outset — some of the ways that James acts around Binoche’s character (who is unnamed) suggest a deeper connection, and yet at the start they clearly do not know one another: he signs her book before going up to speak while she and her son take their seats in the audience.

This set-up is intriguing, but it makes the actors’ lives difficult, and I’m not convinced they really overcome this need to try to play multiple different characters at the same time. The more into the husband character that James gets, the more aggressively domineering, patronising and snippy he gets, though at times earlier on he shows hints of this rudeness, while Binoche must flit almost schizophrenically between coquettish and angry, and all shades of emotion in between. By the end, it can be a little tiring to follow their trajectory. That said, I think Shimell (as the untrained actor) and Binoche do a fine job with what they have to work with.

There are plenty of antecedents for this kind of film, and having recently re-watched (and reviewed) Richard Linklater‘s trilogy of Before films, those are the ones I have most in mind, especially given the match of French leading lady with an Anglophone counterpart, not to mention similarities in certain aspects of their characters. Things get a lot darker for the couple here, making Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1954) another point of comparison. There’s plenty too in the dialogue between characters that feels recognisable, but it’s oddly stilted. However, there is a nice stretch late in the film where James slips into French almost imperceptibly, implying once more that he’s become a different character.

It wouldn’t really be fair to linger on the comparisons with other films though, for Kiarostami is his own filmmaker and imbues proceedings with a strong authorial presence. Many of his favourite themes and motifs are familiar, and the film looks beautiful thanks to the collaboration with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. It’s just that as another experiment in narrative form, it feels a little arid. I may well feel differently about this film in a number of years; perhaps you will find me revisiting it with warmth. For now, I recommend it only advisedly.

Certified Copy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 9 July 2013.

ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ Like Someone in Love (2012)

Lately, I seem to walk as though I had wings
Bump into things like someone in love

The title of this film comes from an old jazz standard. If it’s a hint as to why the characters in the film act the way they do, it’s no more than just a hint. I’d call this latest film by Iranian director/auteur Abbas Kiarostami inscrutable if it weren’t for the overtones of orientalist cliché in such a term, yet surely few modern directors have crafted an oeuvre of such opacity as Kiarostami. Perhaps then this move to Japan for the setting of his latest film isn’t so far-fetched, though I can’t honestly pretend to any great fluency with either Iranian or Japanese culture; I sometimes feel lost dealing with etiquette and mores even in my own corner of the world.

Speaking of opacity, in writing recently about Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, I mentioned the way that the open endings put the resolution of the central drama back into the viewer’s control. This is the kind of narrative transference at which Kiarostami is a master, and when I talk about such a tactic, it’s films of his that I think of first. Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990), for example, works within a documentary framework, and when the sound in the final scene cuts out repeatedly, it prevents us from being sure what has happened between pursuer and pursued, while Zir-e Darakhtan-e Zeyton (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) ends with a long take in extreme long-shot of the two main characters (a woman and the man pursuing her) meeting in a field, too far away for us to hear anything or perceive more than just their body language.

In this new film, likewise, a man pursues a woman he doesn’t understand but feels he’s in love with. The woman is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a university student who seems to moonlight as an escort, while the man is Noriaki (Ryō Kase), a car mechanic. Into the midst of their drama is pitched elderly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) — not to mention the viewer, for the film starts in medias res at a crowded Tokyo bar. It’s an excellent opening, for we cannot be sure who is speaking, and so scrutinise the frame for the relationships between the people shown. Only gradually is it revealed the woman talking is on a phone and out of shot. The rest of the film unfolds more straightforwardly at a narrative level, but yet the question remains of who means what to whom (i.e. who is ‘like someone in love’).

It is fairly clear that Akiko is dabbling in prostitution (the ultimate pretence of love) while she is studying, and that she fell into it when she moved to Tokyo from the country, but nothing so sordid is expressed directly in the film, or shown. Takashi, meanwhile, has engaged her services, but is clearly not interested in sex. His motivations are only hinted at obliquely and never acknowledged: Akiko notes her similarity in appearance to a painting he owns, and to photos of his absent wife and another young woman (his granddaughter presumably). Indeed, he is mistaken for her grandfather by his neighbour and by Akiko’s jealous boyfriend Noriaki, and Takashi seems happy to pursue this role, going out of his way to help Akiko.

If in some ways, then, everyone is acting like someone in love, it’s equally clear that none actually has love: the objects of their respective affections push them away. Akiko betrays little hint of affection for either Noriaki or Takashi, and the only emotion she reveals towards anyone are the tears she sheds when she spots her grandmother, who has come into town to spend time with her but whose calls Akiko ignores. Even Takashi’s elderly neighbour speaks to Akiko of her spurned youthful affections towards Takashi.

These unrequited love connections are part of a wider discourse of disconnection in society, a theme Kiarostami has often touched on. His favourite set, after all, here as in so many of his films, is the interior of a motor vehicle, with its compartmentalised space, its windows (like a cinema screen) between the viewer and the world. It’s this disconnect between characters which largely motivates what happens in the film.

I haven’t spoken much about how the film looks. It’s shot on digital video, mostly in quite static compositions, but at its best it gets some beautiful effects, particularly a taxi ride through nighttime Tokyo. And yet undoubtedly it’s a slow-moving film. It can be difficult initially to discern the drama, but it’s there in all the shots, more pervasive than is perhaps obvious at first glance. The heightened attention required to spatial and visual relationships in the film may mean that the ending is almost too overtly dramatic, but it’s one I’ll want to keep thinking about as it only draws us further into these characters’ lives and motivations.

Sometimes the things I do astound me
Mostly whenever you’re around me

Like Someone in Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima 柳島克巳; Starring Rin Takanashi 高梨臨, Tadashi Okuno 奥野匡, Ryo Kase 加瀬亮; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 25 June 2013.