Considering the near-impossible restrictions and generally repressive atmosphere in Iran, it’s extraordinary the degree to which the country’s film industry has flourished in the past 30 years. Perhaps the best known of the Iranian filmmakers, internationally, is Abbas Kiarostami, who’s become a staple of film festivals and increasingly beloved by film fans across the world.
This week sees the release of "Like Someone In Love," the director’s latest film, which sees him head to Japan for the first time for a film that many have described as a companion piece to 2010’s "Certified Copy," Kiarostami’s first English-language feature and his first made outside of Iran. While, per our review from Cannes last year, the film isn’t one of his finest, it still seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at his work to date. The director doesn’t have the largest body of work, at least in fiction filmmaking — he’s also a prolific documentarian and occasionally makes experimental films too, as well as being a poet and an artist. Indeed, the question of truth and fiction is one that recurs across Kiarostami’s work, often using documentary tropes in a fictional setting.
Nevertheless, we’ve limited ourselves for this feature purely to the director’s fiction films, at least partly because much of his early work remains unavailable in the United States. So, below begins a brief primer to the major films of Abbas Kiarostami — if you check out the film in the coming weeks, it should give you some tips on where to continue with the director’s films.
"Where Is the Friend’s Home?" (1987)
Inimitable Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami struck gold early on with his second feature, following a young boy attempting to deliver a notebook to his classmate which he absent-mindedly left at school. Should the boy return to class without this, he’ll most certainly be expelled. The duration of the story involves the journey, which entails meeting various folk along the way who provide insight as well as directions. In a way it’s kind of like the loosely-plotted road movies we’ve all come to know and love; the filmmaker uses the light premise to explore the rural areas and typical culture of the area. It’s much more touching and optimistic than other renowned child-perspective movies ("The 400 Blows," "L’enfance nue") and without the spurious nature of movies that tread on similar sentimental water. [B+]
Playing fast and loose with the tenets of cinematic truth, documentary truth and outright lies, this genre-bending experiment focuses on the true-life story of a man who impersonated a filmmaker to ingratiate himself into the lives of an innocent family in Tehran. While this is played for fiction, Kiarostami has the real-life people playing themselves, acting out the charade of their lives, while peppering in actual footage of the ensuing trial. The combination of truth and playfulness seems like a rarity in the usually stone-face work of Kiarostami, but if anything, this film helps one to appreciate the sly humor and deconstructionism of the rest of his oeuvre by being such a self-conscious experiment. Even with the theatrics, it’s one of his most straightforward and fulfilling pictures. [A]
"Life and Nothing More…" (1992)
Meta is as meta does. In 1990, a devastating earthquake ravaged Northern Iran where the director’s "Where Is the Friend’s Home?" took place. Worried over the well-being of his two young leads, Kiarostami took to the road to make sure they were alive and well. The film follows this premise (somewhat of an alternate take on ‘Friend’s,’ asking around for the boys), with an actor cast in the Abbas role and a young boy journeying with him. It’s another excuse to partake in Iran’s culture, but it also examines life, determination after tragedy, and human compassion. Though it has extra layers, the picture doesn’t suffer from over-saturation and remains just as moving, if not more, as the first film in the "Koker Trilogy." [A]
"Through the Olive Trees" (1994)
Studios and creative teams struggle to build off a successful feature, but Kiarostami effortlessly squeezes two beautiful and naturalistic tales out of his 1987 treasure "Where Is the Friends Home?" In this closing part of the trilogy, a man from "Life and Nothing More…" attempts to woo his love interest, who (along with her family) is turned off by his lack of income and prospects. Love doesn’t just give up, though, and the male seeks advice from the Abbas character while doing a scene involving his main squeeze. Bits from ‘Life’ are given a new layer and extended beyond their original cuts to detail the budding relationship between the prospective couple, which at times feel both voyeuristic and tender. These multiple and extensive observations into one situation constantly unveil new and varying layers to a situation already thought to be well-established, which is something that is often ignored by most directors either due to naivety or inexperience. Could the director have continued making movies with roots leading back to his sophomore feature? Probably, because even though it my seem like he exhausted the concept in theory, the three films remain as fresh as they ever were, and there’s still plenty of culture and topics left to explore. Human beings, human relationships, and life in general are very complicated and complex topics, so why is Abbas one of the only filmmakers to acknowledge this? Beats us, but so long as he’s taking that unpretentious approach, we’re happy to have him. [A-]
"Taste of Cherry" (1997)
Having collaborated with former assistant Jafar Panahi on the screenplays for the excellent "The Journey" and "The White Balloon," Kiarostami came back in force with another semi-road movie: "Taste of Cherry." The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the filmmaker having only just been allowed to leave the country to attend the festival at the last minute, and it launched the director to international fame. Following Badii (a superb Homayoun Ershadi, who in reality is an architect), a middle-aged man searching the countryside outside Tehran for someone to throw earth in his grave after he commits suicide, it’s one of Kiarostami’s most divisive films — patient and languid to a fault, many have dismissed the film as dull and self-indulgent. We’d respectfully disagree, however — Kiarostami’s humanism is front-and-center, and the film’s more oblique qualities actually give it a more wide-reaching profundity, perfectly matched by the director’s beautifully plain shooting style. The film’s coda, which cuts suddenly to behind-the-scenes footage of Kiarostami and his crew making the film, accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s "St. James Infirmary," is equal parts baffling and brilliant. Few directors have tackled the simple banalities of death and its relationship with life with such skill. [A-]
"The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999)
Bafflingly, Kiarostami has a reputation among some of his critics for being overly serious, even po-faced, but those who think this clearly haven’t seen "The Wind Will Carry Us." His second international festival success in a row, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the picture once again blends truth and fiction, documentary and drama, but to effect more dryly funny than anything in his career to date. Following The Engineer (a filmmaker of sort), who’s come to a small village to document the death of a woman who may be as much as 100 years old. Again, the central characters’ motives remain cloudy for much of the film, even to himself, and it’s one of the most genuinely spiritual films you could ever hope to see, but never in a way that feels preachy or forced. It’s probably the director’s most formally perfect work as well — it’s the last time he worked on film, as opposed to digital, and the collaboration here with great Iranian DoP Mahmoud Kalari makes you wish that he’ll return to it one day soon. Somewhat undervalued on release, history’s seen it take its place as Kiarostami’s most personal, and possibly even his best, work. [A+]
Nominated for the Palme d’Or and starring female director Mania Akbari, this 2002 entry sported a simple premise: 10 car conversations are accounted with two consumer DV cameras attached to both sides of the vehicle. While it may sound amateur in scope and overly-talky, it’s actually a nonpareil, private look into the social (and political) climate of modern-day Iran. These non-actors dig deep and expose themselves, and one of the most memorable instances involves a teary, jilted woman removing her headscarf and revealing a shaved head — one of the first (if not first) times this has been done on film in the country. There’s also the mother-son relationship, one that’s severely tainted by an on-going divorce that the boy isn’t taking particularly well, something that is universally relatable. The youth vocalizes his frustrations without any sort of dignity or censorship — exactly as a child would — and the result is something a bit off-putting, but real. Despite glowing reviews, the single-setting and raw presentation isn’t for everyone, including this writer’s cousin (who caught it in a Persian class and cites "The Blind Side" as a great movie) who claims that it was "the worst movie ever" and that all the boy needed was a slap in the face. That’s an interesting perspective, to say the least. [B]
"Certified Copy" (2010)
With Kiarostami finding life increasingly difficult in Iran (his films haven’t been shown there in a decade, and his friend Jafar Panahi receiving a disgraceful six-year prison sentence), it was only a matter of time before he started to look outside Iran for subject matter, and, following a contribution to the portmanteau picture "Tickets," it came in last year’s Cannes debut of the excellent "Certified Copy." Casting international star Juliette Binoche, a long time friend of Kiarostami, who also appeared in his experimental film "Shirin," was bound to raise the film’s profile, and it’s the director’s most accessible film by about a million miles — if you’re unfamiliar with his work, this is really where you should start. A swooning romance, sort of, pairing Binoche with British opera singer William Shimell (in a role once linked to Robert De Niro, believe it or not), it’s as moving and adult a depiction of a relationship as we’ve seen in a long time, while still remaining identifiably Kiarostami. While it’s perhaps slighter than the very best of his Iranian work, it suggests that the 70-year-old filmmaker still has some surprises in store. [A-]
Odds & Ends: Kiarostami has a body of work stretching back to the early 1970s, most notably his early feature, "Gozaresh," which sadly no one on staff was able to track down — as far as we can tell, it’s never received a formal release in the U.S. or U.K. We hope we do soon, though, particularly because it stars Shoreh Aghdashloo, who a quarter-century later would be nominated for an Oscar for her role in "House of Sand and Fog." It was followed by a series of shorts in the 1980s, while his 1989 documentary "Homework" in particular is well-regarded by those that have seen it.
A true film fan, Kiarostami’s also collaborated on the portmanteau pictures "Lumiere and Company" and "Tickets," the latter with Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi — Kiarostami’s segment being, to our eyes, the strongest of the three. He’s also continued to work in documentary both traditional — the moving, powerful "ABC Africa" — and highly experimental — the Ozu-influenced "Five," the autobiographical "10 on Ten" and "The Roads of Kiarostami." His features can verge on the experimental as well — 2008’s "Shirin" focuses entirely on the faces of the women watching a theatre performance of a famous Persian poem, and is thoroughly fascinating, if something of a slog to even the most dedicated fan.
–Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton