Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami || Produced by: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay by: Abbas Kiarostami || Starring: Homayon Ershadi,, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Baakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi, Mir Hossein Noori
Cinematography by: Homayun Payvar || Country: Iran || Language: Persian
Running Time: 95 minutes
Films that examine suicidality and depression have a lot of balls. Even by today’s standards in the 2010’s, understanding of emotional disorders and mental health awareness is painfully lacking; prejudice against those suffering from such conditions is pervasive, despite the fact that large minorities of the human population experience mental health crises during their lifetime. In the United States, approximately 17% of people suffer from depression alone. I was once one of them.
In light of this, I have special respect for films that tackle the touchy, controversial, and often misunderstood issues of emotional health, and in particular, suicide. These films encourage viewers to exercise empathy, to see the world cinematically through the eyes of people so different on the surface, yet so relatable and human underneath. That is not to say I’ll have a positive reaction to any film that raises mental health awareness — no matter what, I always strive to maintain respect for the craft of cinema above all else — but I feel I understand better than most how nuanced a story must be in order to portray psychological horror realistically, free of hamfisted social commentary, heavy-handed accusations, or worst of all, emotional manipulation.
A film that exemplifies the opposite of all those bad qualities is Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, a film which, like his critically acclaimed 1990 film, Close-Up, embodies the best of cinema’s ability to channel empathy. You feel from both films how Kiarostami empathizes with his subjects; he doesn’t just feel sorry for them or root for them to accomplish some arbitrary or shallow goal; he crafts them with care, watches over them, and develops them as if they’re his own family.
Taste of Cherry is about a man preparing to commit suicide. He spends almost the entire film in his car searching for someone to bury his body at a predetermined spot after he completes the act. About half the film takes place entirely in close-up (similar to Blue is the Warmest Color ) inside this man’s (Mr. Baadi, a brilliant Homayoun Ershadi) car, occasionally shifting perspectives between him in the driver’s seat and the various passengers whom he attempts to convince.
I believe empathy is one of a filmmaker’s most invaluable skills, the ability to climb inside the minds of others and especially their characters, telling realistic stories where those characters become real people we can see as ourselves on screen. Kiarostami demonstrates this in droves. Mr. Baadi’s request to be sent off from this life with dignity is met by three things: Frightened repulsion, condescending preaching, and finally, actual empathy. The Kurdish soldier he recruits first doesn’t even bother to understand him (though his frightened, knee-jerk reactions are themselves very understandable); the Afghani seminarian he asks next attempts to console him through religious teaching, but misses the point entirely; it’s not until he meets a man who can truly relate to his situation and attempts to connect with him on an emotional level that he begins to see things a little differently.
Part of this is great screenwriting, but much of Ershadi’s emotional journey is so heartfelt because Kiarostami’s camera makes it so; his medium close-ups alternate between Ershadi and his passengers when each displays their true character, when each spills their guts on what they think of Ershadi’s situation. Much of Ershadi’s face-time is spent asking personal questions of his passengers, followed by requests to bury his future dead body in slightly different wordings. He also commands the frame whenever he’s rationalizing his suicidal ideation. The perspective shifts to long-shot long-takes whenever someone starts a monologue, most noticeably during the final speech by the third passenger, a museum taxidermist who at last reaches Ershadi.
Needless to say, Taste of Cherry (ToC) is not a movie for everyone. The film’s overall pace is beautiful, if that makes any sense, yet it’s also slow and plodding at times and its repetitive cinematography may not please everybody. It didn’t please Roger Ebert, for one thing. There’s also no soundtrack in the entire film, if I recall, and while I believe that was the best choice overall, music could have strengthened a few emotional segments without verging into cheesy, manipulative territory. Finally, the decision to break the fourth wall in the film’s weird epilogue, which is essentially behind-the-scenes footage, feels out of place after the emotional and semi-uplifting ending. It does feel bright and light, which is appropriate, but Kiarostami’s overwhelming desire to be so cinematically self-reflexive is unnecessary. I would have cut it.
Regardless, ToC remains a powerful and emotional piece of cinema. It says much through great dialogue and even better visuals. How Kiarostami managed to make such a sensitive film about such an otherwise hushed subject in a socially conservative culture like Iran is anybody’s guess, but the filmmaker’s talent allows him to connect to the humanity in any viewer, even if they’re so cynical as to be bored by this (I’m looking at you, Ebert…).
If you’re searching for cinematic catharsis or a film that may persuade you from offing yourself, I say this is as good as any. There are others, of course (e.g. Taxi Driver , Silver Linings Playbook , Good Will Hunting , etc.), but ToC is particularly contemplative and philosophical. Watching it is like listening to a great sermon —- it’s soothing, introspective, and makes you think while you’re finally learning how to feel.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Kiarostami takes a delicate subject and films it with tact, precision, and skill. His dialogue is plentiful, but it’s well written inside the simple, self-contained story, and has a purpose. His cinematography is barely two-dimensional, but again, it works for these purposes to tell the emotional tale at hand. Homayoun Ershadi gives a great performance as a broken man trying to find a reason to live. I hope he did.
— However… the film is a long 95 minutes and feels even longer. The film’s repetitive visuals can wear on even the patient viewer, and the epilogue is an obnoxious head-scratcher.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? Here’s a joke — don’t feel offended: A Turk goes to see a doctor. He tells him, “When I touch my body with my finger, it hurts. When I touch my head, it hurts, my leg, it hurts… my belly, my hand, it hurts!” The doctor examines him and then tells him, “Your body’s fine, but your finger’s broken.”