In memoriam: Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016

From Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990).

The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami died today.  I came late to Kiarostami’s work; in the late 1990s, when a single review by Roger Ebert was enough to convince me to check out or stay away from a film, Ebert's pan of Kiarostami's Palme d’Or-winning Taste of Cherry (1997) killed any interest I might have otherwise had in seeing it.  And then Entertainment Weekly went on to pan The Wind Will Carry Us (2000) in a withering capsule review a couple of years later.  So it wasn’t until I was finally made to watch Taste of Cherry for a film class in college in 2004 that I began to reckon with him.  I watched the film in my dorm room with a group of half-interested acquaintances, none of them cinephiles.  When it was over one of them expressed his annoyance: “what the hell was that?”  (This was, to be fair, his response to almost everything that was not an episode of 24.)  Another one of us said she liked it—that the main character, a cab driver, was sweet, and the ending a happy one, in its own way, considering that it hinges on his suicide.  I wasn’t so sure what to think about it.  But it did seem clear to me right away that Ebert’s one-star dismissal was kind of harsh. 

It was typical of Kiarostami’s films to inspire these kinds of debates, that divisiveness.  When Like Someone In Love premiered at Cannes in 2012, I read a missive from the festival on an online message board disparaging the film and condemning it with a grade of “D+.”  Then I saw the thing the following winter and was absolutely floored by it—it remains my favorite of his films, of which I have gone on to see many since that initial screening of Taste of Cherry in my dorm room.  (A shortlist of his masterpieces: Close-Up, Ten, Certified Copy.) 

Kiarostami was an irrepressibly clever and smart filmmaker whose best films remain mind-boggling in their intricacy, but appreciating them is easy to do even if you’re not equipped to plumb the depths of their meaning.  That’s because they move to the quiet, lulling rhythms of everyday life.  In many of them, nothing much seems to be happening.  This was Kiarostami’s favorite form of deception, a kind of narrative sleight-of-hand in which the nothing-happening suddenly reveals itself to contain multitudes.  And yet even as he performed this deception, the films themselves are easy to become lost in.  I think the college friend who liked Taste of Cherry had the right approach; she opened herself to the film and meaning came to her, as opposed to chasing after its meaning and trying to force it open.  As playful and self-referential as the films are, the depth of feeling in Kiarostami's work is disarmingly simple, honest, and unpretentious.

After learning of Kiarostami’s death I went to YouTube and looked up one of his earliest shorts, Two Solutions to One Problem (1975), which I had never seen but which Jonathan Rosenbaum (who wrote the book on Kiarostami, literally) cites as an essential film.  A mere four minutes long, it’s as good an example as any of Kiarostami’s humanity—and his sly humor, which is present throughout his work but almost never gets talked about.  At the end of the four minutes I let out a laugh that was not so different from my laughter at the end of Like Someone In Love, full of surprise.  And love.  

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