The way an audience perceives art is by framing it within their own experience. This can be taken literally, as in someone considers their lifetime experience against what they are engaging in, or it can be taken more figuratively, as with someone’s mood in the moment of engagement. Engaging with the same piece of art at a different age or when in a different mood, can have the piece take on different properties or cause it to be processed in a divergent manner than before. Put simply: our reaction to art changes based on an entire host of properties that can make a lifetime favorite suddenly problematic and a new experience the greatest thing ever. It’s hard to say where Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) will fall for audiences when it releases on Criterion. Its esoteric approach will undoubtedly keep a majority of viewers at arm’s length, but, those who enjoy a light-on-details examination of life and death may just find something rich within this award-winning Iranian narrative.
In an unknown city in Iran, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives around looking for someone to help him with a simple job: fill a hole with dirt. It requires little skill, and Badhii promises to pay well, yet he cannot seem to find anyone to help. Perhaps it’s because the detail that turns people away is that Badii plans to commit suicide in the hole he wants filled. An act considered a taboo under Islam. Badii engages in three distinct conversations about his plan — one with a soldier, one with a seminarian-in-training, and one with a taxidermist. Each discussion yields its own reaction elicits the audience to consider notions of life, death, faith, and social responsibility.
Utilizing the juxtaposition of extended close-ups with wide nature shots, Kiarostami’s eighth film to join the Criterion Collection is nothing short of a provocateur of difficult thought. It’s easy to understand why Taste of Cherry won the Palme D’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1997. Technically, it did tie with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, but the claim of winning is accurate and understandable after some rumination. The key is that one must not only be open to the experience of Cherry, but also allow time to consider the director’s approach to the events of the film. This might mean locking a camera into one position for extending periods to confine what the audience sees and it could mean lingering on a shadow as gravel and dirt cascade down a hill.
It’s not unusual for a director to switch between differing camera angles or shooting styles in order to capture the story. What is unusual is that very little happens in Cherry outside of Badii’s car and that the camera is almost entirely fixed on his profile in a tight mid-range shot. This creates a psychological confinement as the audience watches the world move around Badii via the window and a piece of the windshield whenever the car moves. One might consider that the locked camera suggests a feeling that the world revolves around Badii or that it suggests a separation from the world, one which Badii wishes to rekindle by returning to the dirt. This is, of course, supposition as the reasons for Badii’s extensively planned suicide goes unknown to the audience and the three people he talks to. The reasoning matters very little when someone has gone to such great lengths and Kiarostami wastes no time on trying to communicate to the audience why Badhii would want to commit an act that the people he talks with find so distasteful. This particular aspect may frustrate some folks who are used to far more tactile reasoning in their stories. Kiarostami eschews dramatism for something far more natural and surprisingly intimate. The locked camera angle on Badii requires Ershadi to convey an entire host of complicated emotions, often with only one side of his face visible to the camera. But an observant audience member will see the longing Badii has as Ershadi’s eyes actively search alongside the road for anyone he might think is a suitable candidate, will see the stiffness in his movements as the day grows longer and no partner to aid him has been found, will see the terrible excitement and mixture of elation and conviction come to rest on his face when he thinks he’s finally found someone almost as desperate as he. Then, upon the conclusion of the story, Kiarostami throws a final twist at the audience by showing footage of his crew shooting the film with Ershadi by his side, as though to tell us that he knows we know Cherry was nothing but an illusion and the actor is fine. But if we know that, then why get invested at all in the characters? Taste of Cherry is a bountiful assortment of physical and philosophical that offers the resilient audience much to chew on.
One thing that sets apart Criterion from regular home releases is the supplemental materials that adjoin the release. For a film like Police Story, listening to Edgar Wright discuss his love and admiration for Jackie Chan is a delight for fans of the actor star. For a film like Rafifi, watching Jules Dassin explain his experience as a blacklisted director in both fascinating and chilling. For a film like The Cameraman, listening to a group of experts discuss the Silent Film era of Hollywood, Buster Keaton, and MGM feels like a cheap trip to film school. With Taste of Cherry, the audience is offered a peek inside both the making of the film as well as the mind of Kiarostami. Considering the often-obscure approach Kiarostami takes with long, patient shots of Badii’s shadow over falling dirt, presenting a juxtaposition between conversations of mortality against a natural landscape growing more barren with each moment, and the small number of locations used for the film, an opportunity to get something akin to concrete answers is gratifying. In this instance, a confirmation of accuracy is less self-aggrandizing for the audience and verification of understanding. For instance, the interview with film scholar Hamid Naficy contextualizes Taste of Cherry within the other films from Kiartostami in order to draw conclusions of intent from the narrative, direction, and more. In Project, the audience can actually watch as Kiarostami and his son, Bahman, create scenes from the film in order to get a sense of the narrative, pacing, and camera angles. Rather than leaving the audience with guesses, these bonus features and others enable the audience to go beyond what they think about the film and enter into a discussion about Cherry with experts. For those more interested in how the film looks, the 4k digital restoration is sublime, looking as though it was shot within the last five years and not in the late 1990s. As for the sound, dialogue and background noise are clear, which are important for a narrative propelled by conversation, but one does not need a surround system to enjoy it. There is little-to-no scoring, favoring natural sounds instead of music, so the uncompressed monoaural soundtrack, while lovely from a technical perspective, is not one that will go as noticed on this release as it may on others.
Taste of Cherry Special Features
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Project, Abbas Kiarostami’s 39-minute 1997 sketch film for Taste of Cherry, made with the director’s son Bahman Kiarostami (38:57)
- New interview with Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy (16:57)
- Rare 1997 interview with Abbas Kiarostami, conducted by Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami (18:40)
- Abbas Kiarostami’s Landscapes with scholar Kristin Thompson (7:09)
- Taste of Cherry Trailer (1:19)
- New English subtitle translation
- An essay by critic A. S. Hamrah
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning July 21st, 2020.
Head to the Taste of Cherry Criterion page for more information.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.