Taste of Cherry (1997)
Written & Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
For a film about such an intimately emotional experience, Taste of Cherry chooses to distance itself, placing the whole of the movie in an almost purely rhetorical realm. We learn very little about the personal life of our main character and not much about the people he encounters during his journey. Conversations orbit around significant existential questions, yet the movie is very much about the beauty of human existence and frailty. This is also a movie that Roger Ebert gave a single star to because he said it lacked any forward momentum, which I think was sort of the point. This is a piece of ambient cinema, and it defies Western expectations.
Mr. Badii is driving through Tehran and the surrounding countryside searching for someone. He doesn’t know who that person is, but he knows they have a job to do. At first, Badii encounters a young Kurdish soldier, then an Afghani seminary student, and finally an aged Turkish taxidermist. To each of these men, he asks the same thing: Will you come to this hole I have dug in the morning and, if I don’t respond when you call my name, bury me with 20 shovelfuls of dirt. Badii plans to kill himself with sleeping pills and drift off in a self-made grave. Why does he want to die? We are never privy to the reason.
Taste of Cherry is meant to leave the audience with questions. That central question is, why does Badii want to die? Once we realize that there will not be an answer forthcoming, then the logical second question is, is it wrong for Badii to kill himself? Also, why does he believe it is vital to have a second person involved? Why not directly go off into the wilderness and end it? Why must he be buried? Even the film’s conclusion leaves us unsure if Badii will die. We see him take his pills, ride in a taxi to the hole, and lay inside as lightning flashes overhead. The screen goes to black, and there is no view of what happens the next morning.
Kiarostami is a filmmaker fascinated with the art of cinema. In his 1990 masterpiece Close-Up, he plays with the boundaries of narrative and documentary filmmaking. The ending of Taste of Cherry similarly warps the reality around this fictional world. Badii closes his eyes, resigned to his death. The screen goes black, and for a moment, we are only left with sounds. Then we fade in on a view of this place in the daytime through a camcorder, apparently documenting the making of the film we have been watching. We even see actor Homayoun Ershadi, who played Badii, walking around smoking a cigarette between takes.
Has Badii’s death been like the start of a film? We sit in a theater, as still as the dead. Lights fade, bathing us in darkness for a moment. Then on a screen before our eyes, we enter a different reality. Is this Badii’s dying dream, that all his troubles in life have been a fiction, a film that ends? Badii is an entirely different person living in different circumstances, a better experience, perhaps. Kiarostami seems to meditate on the escape cinema brings, it is a type of artist that finally seems to bring some clarity to Badii’s mind in the end.
One clue to the nature of Taste of Cherry’s enigmatic ending is the music played over the final scenes. This is Louis Armstrong performing “St. James Infirmary.” The first striking quality is what a Western piece of music; this is something you don’t expect to hear in an Iranian film. There has also been no non-diegetic music for the whole picture; with the addition of this score, we have something that exists only in the realm of movies. Throughout the film, we have heard the Muslim view of suicide as based on the Koran from the three men Badii encountered. They all seemed to share the same sentiments, which are why most of them did nothing to move Badii. He’d heard these arguments before.
The visual shift to the distorted camcorder view, a reveal of the film crew making Taste of Cherry, and the placement of an American Jazz standard jostle the viewer. Ultimately, I believe Kiarostami is making a statement that to understand the world, we must look past our own native cultures. To fully comprehend the breadth of human experience, we must enter other worlds through their art, music, films, etc. Badii never actually dies in this film; like Schroedinger’s Cat, he is both dead and alive. In the same way, this is what happens to performers in cinema, they may physically die, but the act of filming keeps them alive. Taste of Cherry is a richly complex cinematic experience, a daunting film to view but one that opens your mind up to exploring the boundaries of what this medium can say.