Thursday, August 19, 2010

The road to . . . what?

Taste of Cherry (1997) could be titled "Several Conversations About The Same Thing," but that would make it sound tedious, when it is instead strangely riveting. Perhaps it is the question itself, or the very fact of that question being posed in an Islamic context. The question: Can suicide be a positive good? Obviously, the Qu'uran answers with a clear "no," clearer even than Judaism or Christianity.

But even more strangely riveting is the way these conversations are conducted. We are not sitting at a table as in My Dinner With Andre, nor trapped in a radio station as in Mother Ghost. Instead, the protagonist, Mr. Badii is driving around Tehran and environs in his Range Rover, meeting people and giving them rides as he asks their help with his suicide. The crunch of the gravel under the tires, the turn of the steering wheel, Badii's searching gaze, lend a hypnotic rhythm to his quest. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami eschews hand-held, subjective or any sort of experimental shots in favor of rock-steady, smooth motion. Even Badii's careful hand-over-hand handling of the wheel contributes to an air of calm contemplation.

Although this film is cited as an inspiration for Goodbye Solo, it has nothing in common with it other than a car and thoughts of suicide. Whereas the would-be suicide in Solo has made his decision, and settles into a sour funk, Mr. Badii is on a spiritual quest, albeit one with a possibly negative conclusion. But Mr. Badii does not offer a reason for his desire to end his life, he shows no bitterness, exudes no air of failure or disappointment. He seems in search of a higher purpose to the ultimate act of negation.

He meets a number of other men in this journey, all of whom are engaged in significant work, even if it is dull or repetitive. All are making a contribution. The most engaged is the Turk, Mr. Bagheri, who works with his hands and appreciates the palpable physical pleasures that, to his way of thinking, God has made for his children to enjoy. And those joys should be enough, given that any pleasure, probably savored, bespeaks infinity. As seen in the illustration above, Mr. Bagheri's care for other people and appreciation of life seem to earn him entrance to the gates of Heaven. (They're actually the gates of the university, but I'll take a visual metaphor where I can get it.)

The film does not conclude, but merely stops, borrowing a Brechtian trick seen before in films such as O Lucky Man!, The Imposters, The Maids and even the films of Mel Brooks. I have no idea what it is supposed to mean in this context, but it is disappointing, because until then, Kiarostami was on the path to achieving the impossible, making a film, not of a story, but of the process of thinking and of making a decision.

And if this film depresses you, and it shouldn't, just swipe a plum from the fridge. There it is, all the goodness of the world. So sweet and and so cold.

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