Abbas Kiarostami, a director whose films served as many cinephiles’ introduction to the vibrant world of Iranian cinema, died Monday, July 4, at his home in Paris. He was 76.
The great director’s films are marked by an unforced intimacy, by their certainty that the most interesting struggle in life is that of any human being to live on her own terms. They often take place in our quietest, most contemplative spaces. Indeed, some of them are primarily about the feeling of driving around in a car, lost in thought.
Famously, Kiarostami’s movies walk a thin line between fiction and reality. Some of his footage was captured in documentary fashion, while other footage was improvised from brief story descriptions or semi-scripted scenes.
He believed the best way to home in on the truth was through telling lies, and his movies would sometimes pause for long sequences that essentially amounted to found-footage slices of life. Those sequences reversed the stereotypical portrait of Iran as a backward, bloodthirsty society that threatened to take hold in the 2000s. Its political regime might have been oppressive, but the country was full of people with the same sorts of hopes and dreams as anyone else in the world.
Should you be interested in catching up with Kiarostami’s catalog, here are six movies to check out, along with where to watch them. (Many are available on Hulu, of all places.)
Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
Kiarostami’s breakthrough film with international audiences is also one of his hardest films to see. On paper, the story is straightforward: A young boy realizes he’s accidentally brought his friend’s notebook home from school with him and sets out to find his friend’s house so he can return it. The film is the first in the "Koker trilogy," a set of three films set in the same small Iranian village. (Critics dubbed the films in this fashion; Kiarostami rejected the label.)
Poke beneath the film’s surface and you’ll find a movie about the moral duties we owe to each other in any society, about what it means to be a good person, and about taking care of each other. Kiarostami’s protagonists are often very young or very old, perhaps because those two ages allowed him to assign the greatest moral weight to seemingly very simple choices. Where Is the Friend’s Home? is appropriate viewing for any child who will read subtitles, yet it contains depths for adults to plumb as well.
Unfortunately, Where Is the Friend’s Home? is the most difficult film on this list to track down on physical media, though a reasonably well-stocked library should have a copy. Fortunately, it's currently streaming on Hulu.
Wrote Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum of the full trilogy in 1998:
All three works are sustained meditations on singular landscapes and the way ordinary people live in them; obsessional quests that take on the contours of parables; concentrated inquiries that raise more questions than they answer; and comic as well as cosmic poems about dealing with personal and impersonal disaster. They're about making discoveries and cherishing what's in the world--including things that we can't understand.
Close-Up is perhaps Kiarostami’s crowning achievement when it comes to blending fact with fiction. It’s based on the true story of a man who impersonated a famous Iranian director and then wormed his way into a film-loving family’s confidence. He was arrested and put on trial for fraud. But because Kiarostami came to the story late, his documentary version was forced to rely on reenactments — mostly starring the people actually involved in the story.
So what is this? A documentary? A docudrama based on a true story? An attempt to take a true story and improve upon it? In some ways, it’s all three at once, depending on the scene. And what’s fun about it is the way that its own conception — restaged history masquerading as a documentary — parallels the film’s central theme of how impossible it can be to know the truth of any other human being, even if they’re telling you who they are.
Wrote Noel Murray for the AV Club in 2010:
Kiarostami extends that theme of how movies shape reality into his documentary footage, as when he interviews cops who insist that "people out to con others have a certain look," and when he films the testimony of Sabzian, who says he understands that Kiarostami’s camera will be his "audience."
Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002)
Structurally these two works are quite similar, as both are filmed at close range and from the naturalistic perspective of a character driving a car around a small city. Yet Kiarostami relies on the introspection provided by these enclosed settings to raise much bigger questions about the nature of humanity and even modernity.
Taste of Cherry’s subject is a man who wants to die, looking for able-bodied passengers to help him do the deed. The film’s symbolism is found in deep silences, among sparse dialogue and tense visual metaphors: Something as simple as a mound of dirt being pushed onto a landfill becomes so much more when the character who’s looking at said landfill is thinking about who will bury him after his death.
Writing about Taste of Cherry’s triumphant Cannes debut (it won the Palme d’Or), Stephen Holden of the New York Times summed up a crucial facet of Kiarostami’s filmmaking ability, as evidenced in both these films:
Mr. Kiarostami, like no other filmmaker, has a vision of human scale that is simultaneously epic and precisely minuscule. While each of the men Mr. Badii approaches is a vivid, autonomous individual with a rich personal history and an innate sense of dignity, each is also seen as part of the human anthill.
Ten’s subject is an unnamed woman who engages in conversations with her various passengers as she drives around Tehran. Portrayed by actress Mania Akbari, who is essentially playing herself alongside her real-life young son, the woman embodies the complicated overlap between the politicized and the personal, as well as the ambiguity between fiction and real life that Kiarostami loves to inject into his work. The title, "Ten," refers both to the age of her son and the 10 conversations she has over the course of the film.
Through the myopic view of a dash cam, Kiarostami manages to widen the scope to reveal what a politically charged Iran looked like post-9/11 but pre-2009 Green Wave, through the eyes of women both directly and obliquely impacted by a changing culture. That the film looks like a home-camera affair only adds to its intimate, politically charged overtones.
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
As rich and sweeping as Ten was claustrophobic, Kiarostami’s story of a free spirit named Behzad and his efforts to make a home for himself in a remote Iranian village is reminiscent of other hymns to a countryside in flux, like How Green Was My Valley or Days of Heaven. It’s also a departure from the rest of Kiarostami’s canon.
Whereas the director’s other films have a disruptive, troubled feel as Kiarostami reacts to the changing world around him, The Wind Will Carry Us feels like a celebratory reconciliation between tradition and change, between past and future.
Although superficially the story is about Behzad’s attempt to chronicle death — that of an old and fading relative — ultimately, it evolves into a tale of his new understanding of how to be alive, truly alive, in a world that feels perpetually too big and perpetually on the brink of disaster.
Writing about the film’s US release three years after its debut on the film festival circuit, Time reviewer Richard Corliss said, "The rhythm of rural life has rarely seemed so lucid and luminous."
Certified Copy (2010)
One of Kiarostami’s final two films — which also happen to be the only ones he made outside of Iran— the predominantly French production Certified Copy, a vehicle for Juliette Binoche, is one of his greatest works. On the surface, the film seems to be a simple story of a couple, but as with all Kiarostami movies, it slowly reveals itself to be about the separation between the truth and fiction — and whether it even matters which is which.
Binoche and William Shimell play two people who meet by happenstance when she attends a discussion of his book. (The book gives the movie its title, as it’s a discussion of how art is always a copy of something.) The two spend the day together, seemingly drawn to one another, but as the film goes on, it becomes less and less clear whether they’ve just met or, indeed, have been married for years and are acting out a scenario intended to shake up their marriage.
The movie’s ambiguity proved to be its chief selling point for many reviewers. Writing for New York magazine, David Edelstein said:
Let me add that what’s onscreen is tactile and emotional, full of shocking anger, unexpected tenderness, and devastating epiphanies. Juliette Binoche is acting a role, which means she’s a fake, in the sense that all actors are fakes. But I could swear in Kiarostami’s long takes she was dissolving before our eyes and becoming this woman. Acknowledging its artifice, Certified Copy becomes intensely, miraculously real.
The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray.