The Getting of Wisdom
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami might be able to say with Nietzsche, ‘why am I so wise’, if it didn’t seem like one of those philosophical conundrums where to say I never tell the truth indicates that if the statement is true that means it is a lie. Isn’t central to wisdom the notion of modesty? Yet if Kiarostami’s films are important for their begetting of wisdom, then often within his films he shows us characters that are either consciously or otherwise in pursuit of it, but who hardly initially have it in their possession, and perhaps need not possess it as long as its meaning is evident within the film even if not within the character. This doesn’t at all make his films lessons in wisdom, but it does seem to be the case that they are explorations of it, films that manage at the same time to be wise but without at all possessing the succinct clarity and smoothness of the homily or the fable. His films are nothing if not examples of conundrums of their own as they search out a wisdom that refuses to take the images Kiarostami shows us for granted. They are paradoxical in the sense of conflicting with received opinion, but also paradoxical in the intractibility of the givens of a problem, exemplified in the taxidermist in A Taste of Cherry who will help the central character Mr Badii take his own life, but is also of all the characters the one who provides him with the best reason for not doing so. Mr Badii needs a man who is philosophical about life to help bury him, but the man creates doubts about taking one’s life by telling an anecdote that might partly rob our central character of the desire to do so. The taxidermist is both the man who will help him to die and the man who will help him to live.
A great example of Kiarostami’s paradoxical understanding of an event – its capacity to be more than one thing at the same time and make the oppositions mutually compatible – is Close-Up. Made in 1991, the film details the case of a young cinema fan who pretends to be the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. As the unemployed Hossein Sabzian convinces a well-heeled family of fellow cinema lovers that he happens to be the director, so he eventually gets caught out, and Kiarostami explores the case with a combination of reenactment and documentation; the former scenes all played by those who happened to be part of the ruse: Sabzian and the family he duped. When at one moment during the court case Sabzian quotes Tolstoy: “art is a sentimental experience that the artist develops in himself and shares with others”, it is as though Kiarostami has wondered how he might make a film where the important thing isn’t the nature of the ruse, but the exploration of this sentimental experience. What Kiarostami succeeds in doing is adding a few layers to Sabzian’s statement while managing to hold to the simplicity of the sentiment, but expanding it into several questions of film form and feeling. Instead of a straight documentary account of the case, or a straight fictional re-enactment of the events, the director works in the interstice between the two forms to generate a work that is true to the impulse that led Sabzian to pretend to be Makhmalbaf, and led to the family hoping that he was. They both wanted to be part of cinema, and Kiarostami’s film grants them that wish by making a film about the case, but even more, one feels by making a film about their desire to be part of a filmic universe, to share in the sentimental experience. If Sabzian pretends to be Makhmalbaf in the preceding events, he gets to pretend to be Makhmalbaf all over again while at the same playing himself in the film Kiarostami makes. It is a variation of a comment Kiarostami offers in an interview with Nassia Hamid. Talking of a traditional folk theatre play he attended, the Taazieh, Kiarostami says he saw that the very old man playing the lion “became tired – and went to lie down in the shade of a boulder. He began to smoke a cigarette. A smoking lion. I didn’t see anyone laugh at this. He could be the lion and not be the lion.”(Sight and Sound) In Close-Up, Sabzian is both Makhmalbaf and not Makhmalbaf, Sabzian and not Sabzian. The family are both themselves and playing themselves, no longer the subject of a ruse but part of aesthetic creation, fulfilling Tolstoy’s statement. The film concludes with the actual Makhmalbaf meeting Sabzian from prison after he has completed his sentence, and driving off with him on a motorbike, as the film has realized Sabzian’s dream of being himself, being Makhmalbaf and also meeting the director of his dreams.
Part of Kiarostami’s wisdom here lies in the capacity to offer a very complex film the more we think about it, but without at all countering the simplicity of feeling. When the film ends with Kiarostami filming Sabzian with Makhmalbaf we might wonder whether this is the former coming out of prison and being met by the two directors, one filming and the other on the bike, or whether this is the dramatic re-enactment of the moment not as documentary but as fiction. Whichever way we look at it, however, the feeling the film manages to generate is unequivocal: a feeling of unity between art and the common man, and yet it contains within it a dizzying mise-en-abyme of the real and the fictional.
This issue of reality and fiction is central to Laura Mulvey’s admiration for the director, and also what she sees as his popularity with cinephiles generally. “Close-Up is a key film for understanding Kiarostami’s fascination with cinema as a tromp l’oeil medium, at the same time reality and illusion, creating uncertainty about what one sees with one’s own eyes. And with its self-reflexivity – and questions of class central to its drama – it is also a key to understanding the director’s popularity with the international cinephile community” (Sight and Sound). But equally it brings to mind the French critic Serge Daney’s comment, quoted by Fergus Daly in Film West, where he asks “by what strange alchemy can an Iranian working alone rediscover and advance Rossellini?” Kiarostami seems very much to hold to Rossellini’s comment concerning neo-realism: that “what mattered to me was man. I have tried to express the soul, the light that is inside these men, their reality in its absolute intimacy and uniqueness, attached to an individual with all the meaning of the things that are around him.” (Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s) But Kiarostami does so by means which are very different in their paradoxical complexity, but also ostensibly simple in their aesthetic purpose.
However, this isn’t at all to say Kiarostami’s films are formally straightforward no matter their frequent debt to realism. It is a debt that might make us in certain instances wonder whether we are watching fact or fiction, but his work is contained within a formalism that makes us ask questions about certain shot choices. In A Taste of Cherry Kiarostami holds to a long shot of the Range Rover as we hear a conversation between Mr Badii and the Turkish taxidermist who will agree to help bury him after he has take his own life. It is one thing to establish the screen space; quite another to continue holding to that space without us quite knowing who happens to be in the passenger seat. It’s an approach he also uses in The Wind Will Carry Us, where there is an early exchange between the central character and his colleagues in the car. While we eventually get to see Behzad Dorani; we never at all see the others. In Ten, the film initially focuses on the young boy getting a lift from his mum, and, as they argue back and forth, Kiarostami holds on the son until some minutes later showing us the mother. In Shirin, an audience watches a film, and the director stays throughout on the faces of those responding to it as he eschews showing us the film they are watching.
Now one of the ways in which Kiraostami takes neo-realism further is to respect found realities, but to insert into them important aporias: gaps in which one can invest meaning on the most pragmatic, cognitive of levels. Often Kiarostami doesn’t ask us maddeningly and insistently to make sense of his images, and thus why he is still a filmmaker in sync with neo-realism, but he does make us speculate on absences. Where a modernist master like Antonioni will have us musing over the unusual reaction of Jeanne Moreau as she watches a fight in La notte, or Godard will make us wonder why the music cuts out in the middle of a street sequence before the central character meets the philosopher in a cafe in Vivre sa vie, Kiarostami’s choices can often feel less like formal decisions that force upon us questions of the film’s aesthetic, than questions that we have already answered before thinking about them. If we’re surprised by how attractive the boy’s mother happens to be in Ten, is it because we have already formed an impression in our mind of what she looks like before Kiarostami cuts to her several minutes in? The withholding of the film whilst showing the faces in Shirin might seem to resemble Robert Bresson’s partial perspectives, yet where Bresson wants one to reassemble an event through parts that signify the whole but where the whole is denied, as in the murder in L’Argent, Kiarostami’s images rarely feel that they’re pressurising us into extracting meaning; more that the attention on one thing inevitably leads to the absence of another. Shirin is of course a formalist exercise, but it is as if Kiarostami seeks in the faces he shows us the naïve pleasures of cinematic affect.
This isn’t a question of praising Kiarostami over Antonioni, Godard and Bresson; merely to acknowledge a certain difference, in seeing in Kiarostami’s style not the brilliantly aggressive formalism found in the others, but gentle formalist procedures that add to our sense of Kiarostami’s wisdom. For example, when the taxidermist and Mr Badii initially talk in A Taste of Cherry, and the film holds on the long shot of the Range Rover driving along the mountain road, any withholding of the close-up is countered by the presence of the landscape, the sense of reflective possibilities the image offers. Equally when the boy talks to his mum in Ten, his irritation and anger is such that there is no obvious need to cut to the mother as any frustration we might feel in Kiarostami’s withholding is more than compensated for by what is in the frame. If Shirin feels like his most experimental film (outside of the vignette feature Five) it might reside in the feeling that the absence does take on an element of parti pris: that what we don’t see isn’t quite compensated for by what he happens to show us. Kiarostami’s ‘wisdom’ gives way to formalist experimentation, and to the detriment of fruitful curiosity. It is gently offered, but maybe limited in its result.
Now we want to be careful here, because our purpose isn’t to go through Kiarostami’s work to pick out the high points and denigrate the low ones, utilising terms like masterpiece, failure, folly and so on. It is instead to stay close to our initial claim about Kiarostami’s capacity to make wise films, and also to keep in mind Daney’s remark about Kiarostami going beyond neo-realism whilst still acknowledging its importance. In other words if Kiarostami is a filmmaker of genius, it isn’t because we feel he is experimental, but because he has absorbed certain problems of ellipsis within a form that could have arrived at homily, but manages both to be of immense complexity and great simplicity. Here, Kiarostami’s comment on And Life Goes On captures this well, a film the director made as a follow-up to Where is My Friend’s House?, with a fictional director and his son going back to the region looking for the boy who was the central character in the first film, and whom the director feels may have lost his life in a devastating earthquake that affected the area. Talking of one encounter with an earthquake survivor in the film, Kiarostami said, quoted in Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second, “I quite simply wanted to remind the spectators, in the middle of the screening, that they were watching a film, and not reality. Because reality – that is the moment when the earthquake happened – we were not there to film.” The operative word is simply. Kiarostami insists that because he filmed a year after the event rather than three days later as the fictional film implies, he wanted to acknowledge the gap, and did so through this exchange that makes clear the time lag was much longer than the drama proposes. “I made the film one year after the 1991 earthquake,” he says in the interview with Hamid. “While it’s supposed to be a reconstruction of the third day after the earthquake, my technical crew were complaining that the actual event took place in summer and now it’s Autumn, but I didn’t care because I was not trying to make a simple, faithful reconstruction. I’m talking about a universal thing, about earthquakes and death, so it was just an excuse. I don’t value the realist cinema and documentary”. (Sight and Sound). After using the word ‘simply’ positively in the first interview; now he uses the word ‘simple’ pejoratively in the latter. Yet we can easily account for this apparent contradiction. Kiarostami’s most interesting work is concerned with simply exploring the real, but doesn’t want to fall into the simple ways of exploring it. It is as though he is using simply to mean truth, and simple to indicate verisimilitude. In neorealism, for all the films’ artifice, the two were assumed to have a direct link with each other, evident in screenwriter Cesar Zavattini’s remark: “the most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the “story” was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough…” (A Montage of Theories)
Kiarostami would agree with many of Zavattini’s remarks, but not the one where it is enough to look directly at reality, and not least because verisimilitude interests him far less than truth. Reality might allow a filmmaker to escape from meretricious narrative devices, but not quite allow him to seek certain verities. When Zavattini says, “life is not what is invented in “stories”, life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting and patient search,” Kiarostami might reply that the patient search isn’t enough. Reality must be transformed but not in the direction of fiction, but towards creating a problem with our ready notion of the real. Fiction doesn’t generally do this: its fictional status is acknowledged, and stories come out of this fictionalising process. But what if the fictional process seems less acknowledged than reality troubled: where the films feel like intermediate works caught between fiction and fact? This is exactly what happens in And Life Goes On, with the fiction consisting of actors standing in for Kiarostami and his son, and the filming taking place a year later, and not three days after the earthquake as the story proposes, but still deals with the earthquake’s aftermath. Such an approach is a little like Kiarostami’s lion/not a lion comment, where the work seems at the same time to be an account of the earthquake and a story about the earthquake. The people they meet, and the houses they pass, would have been affected by the event, but the earthquake loses its immediacy and gives space to Kiarostami’s reflective need, his ability to focus on the meaning of a situation more than its spectacular properties.
Gilbert Adair captures this element to Kiarostami’s work nicely when he comments on the film. “In one scene, the filmmaker meets an ancient, bent crone who solicits his assistance in removing a carpet from the ruins of her already tumbledown house. After cursorily inspecting the situation, he declines to help on the grounds that the carpet is too tightly wedged under rubble for the two of them alone to extricate it.” Adair adds, “the narrative continues on its way until, some ten minutes later, while the focus of our attention is directed elsewhere, we observe, in a corner of the screen and out of the corner of an eye, that the old woman has, after all, succeeded, with unimaginable determination and labour, in dragging the carpet outside by herself.” (Surfing the Zeitgeist) How many films utilise the spectacle over the aftermath, the monumental event as opposed to the small gestures attempting to return a person’s world to normality? Kiarostami possesses in And Life Goes On a dimension of neo-realism (like Germany Year Zero it is a great rubble film), but denies not only the spectacle, but also the flip-side of that in many a conventional film: the triumph over arduousness. As Adair says, “it is a sublime moment of cinema, all the more so because it refuses to bully us into interpreting it as a statement on “human resilience in the face of adversity’”.
A filmmaker looking directly at reality as Zavattini proposes might ignore the spectacle and focus on the suffering, but what happens if you look not directly, but obliquely? Such a touch can make us feel that we are in a realm that is neither quite fictional nor factual, with the old lady’s gesture as if caught accidentally by the film, like a detail in a documentary account where someone is interviewed in the foreground whilst someone we might have seen moments before walks back in the same direction and looks at the camera. We might notice this person, but they are incidental to the interview the documentarist is focusing upon. In the moment in Kiarostami’s film it is a brilliantly quiet encapsulation of his very title – life goes on and the woman’s successful attempt to pull the rug out from the ruins is but one of many small victories against much greater adverse forces. Part of Kiarostami’s wisdom here resides not only in a Bazinian sense of the subtle, in theorist Andre Bazin’s respect for an image that contains ambiguity and where the viewer isn’t too obviously led, but also in recognizing that the very process of life going on contains within it an aesthetic dimension that shows exactly that. If a film proposes that life goes on and yet obsessively dawdles over life’s small triumphs it might better to call one’s film: life stands still. Kiarostami has the capacity to see through to the bottom of a problem. He knows that if he calls his film And Life Goes On, then he must also wonder what happen to be the manifestations of this. The old lady is a fine example of the homily, but the broader decision of filming a year after the earthquake whilst setting it days afterwards captures it also. The film is both saying life goes on and that life has gone on, with the film’s purpose to capture not so much temporal specificity, as we find in neo-realism, but a truth greater than the veracity of the moment.
There is often in the notion of realism, even Bazin’s very nuanced take on it, the idea that truth and evidence are interconnected. As Bazin says, “the lenses used in The Best Years of Our Lives…conform more to the optics of normal vision and tend because of deep focus to foreshorten the images, that is to say, spread it out on the surface of the screen. Wyler thus deprives himself, once again, of certain technical means at his disposal so that he can respect reality better…Cinematic ‘purity’, or values…must be calculated on the basis of the effectiveness of the mise-en-scene” (Bazin at Work) However, Kiarostami often seems to wonder whether truths are better explored when much is hidden. We have already touched upon the way in which in Ten and A Taste of Cherry Kiarostami withholds a face for some minutes even though we hear the voice, and his films are full of elliptical elements that indicate it isn’t the transparency of the world that leads to understanding, but structuring absences. In scenes in A Taste of Cherry, ABC Africa and The Wind Will Carry Us this proves the antithesis of Bazin’s remarks on William Wyler’s film, as Kiarostami plays up literal darkness, with the lightning at night showing and hiding the central character’s face as he lies in the grave in A Taste of Cherry, offering power cuts in ABC Africa, and the inside of a cave where the central character encounters a woman in The Wind Will Carry Us. But more often what is hidden is categorical meaning. Why is the central character and his crew in the small village hundreds of miles from Tehran in The Wind Will Carry Us, why does Mr Badii want to take his own life in A Taste of Cherry, what exactly is the relationship between the couple in Copie Conforme? Kiarostami seems to propose that truth doesn’t reside in the uncovering of the world, but in its partial obfuscation that can reveal truths of feeling over positivistic evidence.
Godfrey Cheshire mentions talking to Kiarostami about his father’s illness. “The illness was protracted and very painful, and at many points his father yearned to die. The fact that he didn’t elect to kill himself was not what ended up occupying Kiarostami; what did was the question of his father’s right to make the decision…What he ultimately decided, he tells me, was that religion did not offer the ‘higher wisdom’ on the subject.” (Projections 8) In A Taste of Cherry we have no idea why Mr Badii wants to take his own life, but it is as though Kiarostami is looking for a higher wisdom that is more important than either the suicide or the reasons behind it. The interest for the director lies not in the motivation or the action, but in the space between them. To understand something of Kiarostami’s cinematic wisdom is to understand something of this eschewal of the reasons behind the suicide and the presentation of the suicidal act. When Cheshire offers the biographical detail concerning Kiarostami’s father, it is to show what the director extracted from it – the capacity to think through a dimension of the event that is more than the event without at all undermining or ignoring its magnitude. Equally, in a number of Kiarostami’s films the event of magnitude (the earthquake in And Life Goes On, a possible suicide in A Taste of Cherry, an old woman’s impending death in The Wind Will Carry Us, a criminal offence in Close-Up), becomes insignificant next to a greater question that tries to seek surplus meditative value. Concerning Kiarostami’s father, there is no reason why he should have reflected on this higher wisdom than the religious, but the illness made him do so nevertheless, and it’s as if this is the sort of reflective space Kiarostami seeks to elicit in the work, and brings to mind Cheshire’s remark that “the films seem unusually careless – free – on the question of audience. But perhaps that apparent lack of concern conceals a deeper sense of anxiety and responsibility on the same issue…” (Projections 8) The freedoms his films search out are often the spaces that other filmmakers close off through the twin aspects of motive and action. The ‘carelessness’ of Kiarostami’s films often comes from seeking this in-between space.
There are numerous examples of this contemplative aspect in Kiarostami’s work. Early on in Close-Up, the reporter gets in a cab with two police officers and explains to the cab driver that they are going to arrest someone who has been impersonating Makhmalbaf, but instead of going into the house with the reporter, we remain outside with the cab driver and the two cops. The interest lies in the events inside, but Kiarostami risks frustrating the viewer still further by the apparent irrelevance of what he does concentrate on: at one moment showing an aerosol can rolling down the street. This is the apparent carelessness one might attribute to the director, but it contains within it the potential for wisdom that motivation/action often denies. The latter doesn’t create reflective space but usually the anticipation of events that is quickly, or sometimes slowly, alleviated by the necessary dramatic revelation. When a film talks about the awfulness of an off-screen character, or of their handsomeness, of their volubility, the film creates an expectation in the viewer that is met by the scene that will then occur. It might choose to frustrate this desire: the person can’t make it the following night and we have to wait longer still. But this would not pass for a structuring absence; merely a delaying of audience satisfaction. We’re all the more desirous on the basis of the expectation deferred . Kiarostami works much more, though, with structuring absences. Whether it is the crew we never see in The Wind Will Carry Us, the biography of Mr Baddii that will never be revealed in A Taste of Cherry, or the village that won’t be reached before the conclusion in And Life Goes On, the director creates the need not so much for anticipation, as meditation. When we don’t get to see the friend until much later than we expected, this is rarely a meditative issue, but in Kiarostami whether the absence is permanent or temporary there is nevertheless this thoughtful dimension being opened up.
For example, as we stay outside the house in Close-Up whilst the journalist goes in, even though the tension in the sequence obviously resides far more in the journalist confronting Sabzian than in an aerosol can rolling down the street, the space Kiarostami creates compensates for the drama he refuses. When much later in the film Kiarostami shows us the exchange in the house, we are unlikely to respond to it as we would a delayed moment of anticipation, and which would add to that suspense, but as an example of the complex situation that the earlier moment invited us to give the room to explore. The focus near the beginning of the film on the dramatically desultory creates space for one to reflect on the information in the car that we have been given up until this point, and to muse over the type of meditative thinking required for the film. Kiarostami’s dedramatizing technique functions a little like Yasujiro Ozu’s pillow shots: those moments in his films where a train pulling into a station or a shot of a building needn’t necessarily be the arrival of a character in the former instance, nor an establishing shot in the latter, but cinematic pauses for thought.
Equally, in A Taste of Cherry, when Kiarostami withholds the taxidermist’s physical presence initially, whilst we hear the voice on the soundtrack as the camera focuses on the long shot of the car going round the hills, this again gives us reflective room. The question isn’t chiefly what is withheld and that leads to a specific expectation, but what is withheld that can lead to a thoughtful space. Even in Ten, the revelation of the mother’s visage isn’t surprising because of our anticipation of what she looks like; more that we might have subconsciously created an idea of what she looks like based on the voice and manner that maybe isn’t matched by the appearance. By the same reckoning, our interest in the passenger in A Taste of Cherry isn’t an idle thought about what he might look like, more an opportunity for us to concentrate on the meditative possibilities in the landscape accompanying the words, rather as one might look into the fire whilst listening to the radio.
One offers such an analogy because it captures an aspect of Kiarostami’s cinema that could seem insignificant but appears central to its wisdom, and it is the capacity to leave the viewer both inside and outside the film simultaneously, without at all undermining the intensity of the experience. It might even be a useful definition of wisdom: being inside and outside the experience at the same time, allowing for one to feel strongly whilst also accepting that the strong feelings evoked are part of a world much bigger than the feeling. Now of course no matter the film experience, we are aware that it is a film: even those who cry at Oliver’s loss at the end of Love Story are unlikely to send him letters hoping he’ll feel better over time. The film nevertheless still wants to hold us in a vice-grip of emotional dependency as we feel desolate at Jennifer’s death from leukaemia. A broader sense of perspective would endanger the lachrymose. Kiarostami reverses this, feeling that the lack of perspective would be a failure of wisdom. In very different ways, a number of Kiarostami’s films undercut the emotional to generate space for the wise, as though he were looking not for catharsis, as it is often defined, as an emotional purgation, but closer to a process of understanding. Instead of the art work releasing feeling, first and foremost, it demands the thoughtful. Thus when Kiarostami ends both And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees with long shots that at the same time leave the narrative ending open, he does so because though the drama isn’t complete, its incompleteness perhaps all the better releases the pursuit of wisdom behind the drama. And Life Goes On concludes with the director still trying to make his way to the village despite the hill he has tried to drive up having already defeated his car’s horsepower. As he keeps trying to do so we also see that a man is walking up the very same hill with a 13 kilo gas bottle on his shoulders. What matters is this point of comparison more than the director arriving at his destination: it is the idea that life goes on not only in the wake of a catastrophe, but that life goes on prosaically. Cars will have frequently struggled to get up that hill, and people will have long before the earthquake had to lug heavy bottles of gas up the road. Where most disaster films focus on the exceptional all the better to release the cathartically manipulative, Kiarostami insists that the exceptional (the earthquake) gets absorbed by the quotidian. The long shot captures well this sense of perspective in the very form.
In Through the Olive Trees again there is a scene that could have suggested the cathartic in a narrow, emotional sense, “one that causes us some remarkable physiological effect, such as an oblivion of the outer world, the flowing of tears, visceral or laryngeal sensations and such like”, in John Crowe Ransom’s words, but that Kiarostami holds in abeyance through shot choice and the open ending. In this follow-up to And Life Goes On, throughout the film a young actor within the film, Hossein, has pursued a fellow actress. Though they come from different backgrounds (she can read; he can’t) and she has shown that she isn’t interested in his advances, he nevertheless keeps trying to woo her, and the film ends with a hint that maybe he is finally making progress, but with no guarantee that he has done so. With the film holding on a long shot of Hossein as he goes after her in the dip of the valley, so the film concludes as he changes direction and starts to move once again towards the camera, this time with the urgency of someone who has perhaps been given hope. What matters though is not whether he has won her over, but again a dimension within the chase, in the sense we have that life continues, people will fall in love, nature will encapsulate us, and wisdom lies not in the narrowness of someone’s life but the broadness within which it fits. Kiarostami’s long shots in both And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees give us interpretive freedom, but they also indicate the landscape as an image beyond the immediate self. If philosopher Henri Bergson could say a landscape is not funny in Laughter, it was because it lacked the dimension of the human that would allow for the humorous. Kiarostami’s landscapes in both And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees do still have a dimension of the human but it is dwarfed by the immensity of what surrounds the characters. Any humour in the sequence (the car desperately crawling up the hill; Hussein desperately chasing after the woman he adores) is very much secondary to the spatial aspect giving perspective to the lives focused upon.
These examples of actually meditative spaces in his work also have their correlative: the mysterious moments one finds in Where is My Friend’s House?, A Taste of Cherry, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us. The moment where the wind picks up and night falls in the former, the moments in the cave in the latter; the scene in A Taste of Cherry at the quarry, the moment where the director and the director playing the director talk in Through the Olive Trees. As one director says to the other: “if you greet the souls of the inhabitants of this place, they greet you”. Surely wisdom shouldn’t only contain formal innovation and the well framed question, or even the well-framed shot, but also accept the mysteriousness of life as well. When Mr Badii sits at the quarry as rocks tumble around him, the scene feels like it invokes within it all the chaos that the other scenes and especially the one with the taxidermist try to contain. If there is the taste of mulberries proposed by the taxidermist suggesting life might be worth living, this scene indicates much more the taste of dust. When the central character in The Wind Will Carry Us goes into the darkness where the young woman milks the goat, it is a moment that seems to contain its own mysteries as he wonders how she can work all day in the low light. In Where is My Friend’s House? the simple task of getting a school jotter to his friend seems through the wind and the fading light to hint at the ineffable: a small favour has turned into an epic journey. Through the Olive Trees keeps the directors in long shot as they talk, as if enfolded within the landscape they are talking about while they wonder what people have lost after the earthquake, with many of the survivors now living on the side of the road.
Perhaps this is the final wisdom of Kiarsotami’s work: that for all the meditative space he creates, he creates a still greater one for the mysterious. The question of why Kiarostami is so wise cannot be countenanced purely on the basis of wisdom, as we might find in the fable or the homily, but that wise words are all very well, but what sits in them and underneath them? “We are busy reconstructing the real I kept telling them”, Kiarostami once said, “and that is what cinema is”. But this is the real not only of cinematic realism, but also perhaps of the real as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan proposed it happened to be. As Malcolm Bowie says in his book on Lacan, “all is not the same thing as being able to name it, process it symbolically and put it to work for one’s own ends”. For as Lacan says, “For the deal does not wait, and specifically not for the subject, since it expects nothing from the word. But it is there, identical to its existence, a noise in which everything can be heard”. Though there are other filmmakers in Iran according to Cheshire who are oddly more highly thought of than Kiarostami (including Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Beyzaie), few directors in the world, let alone in Iran, can match him in aesthetic subtlety and the breadth of questioning that can come out of it. It is as if the mystery of Daney’s question about Kiarostami surpassing neorealism is met by the mystery of the work that quietly refuses to yield an answer.