Blu-ray Review: Criterion Upgrades Kiarostami's TASTE OF CHERRY
Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami returns to the roads of Iran on an exploratory quest about death and life.
When venerating an auteur of legend, the tendency emerges to single out one film of a mighty oeuvre as a representation for all of them.
In obligatory list making we are particularly guilty of this; making Tokyo Story to stand in for all of Yasujirō Ozu, The Searchers stand in for all of John Ford, 2001: A Space Odyssey stand in for all of Stanley Kubrick, Vertigo to stand in for all of Alfred Hitchcock. This is not to say that the other great works of these artists are altogether ignored, but when the time comes to narrow things down, there’s only so many brackets.
Consequently, over time, these particular titles tend to become extra-canonized. Such seems to be the emerging case with Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (طعم گيلاس; Ta’m-e gīlās).
(Critic’s note: Although many, including the 2012 Sight & Sound “Best Films of All Time” list, rank Kiarostami’s Close-Up as “the one” for his filmography, recent chatter indicates that the tide has perhaps shifted to Taste of Cherry. What may be considered thematic spoilers for the film follow...)
An amber-hued travelogue through quake-ravaged rebuilding of rural Tehran, Taste of a Cherry is a mostly car-bound affair. More specifically, it’s a quest by the driver, one Mr. Badii (a character with a name seemingly straight out of the board game “Clue”, played by then-non-professional actor Homayoun Ershadi) trying to recruit the right person to bury him after he commits suicide. Ershadi’s stony blank quality serves the role perfectly as a character evoking sympathy while employing every manipulation in the book. In true Kiarostami fashion, we don’t come to learn the true, fatalistic nature of Badii’s mission until the film is more than twenty minutes in. We never come to learn the backstory that’s brought him to this point.
As it turns out, despite the hordes of self-described contractors seen roaming the city streets desperate for work, the payment offered (apparently a significant payment at that) for assisting a stranger in his self-inflicted death is easy money that no one’s interested in taking. The difficulty of Badii’s venture indicates that this is an Iran not only fixated with coming back from the edge of death (all the witnessed rebuilding, due presumably to damage inflicted by the massive earthquake of 1990 or any number of subsequent lesser quakes in this most seismic of countries) but actively in opposition to further death.
As Badii’s Range Rover transverses the perpetually zagging and beautifully sparse landscape, he one by one picks up several potential grave coverers, slowly working to convince them of the “ten minutes of work for six month’s pay” that he’s hoping they’ll agree to. (Slowly, each comes to realize that this is not a homosexual pickup attempt, but something much, much different). The three separate passengers- a young soldier, a seminarian, and a wizened taxidermist- take on vague kind of “Good Samaritan” characterizations, with the third being the voice of reason, but also arriving to a fairly surprising conclusion.
And speaking of conclusions, Taste of Cherry is not out of place among Kiarostami’s self-referential kind of “Russian doll” tendencies when it comes to going meta. (Witness his storytelling evolution over the course of his “Koker Trilogy”, or his final formal mediation, 24 Frames). Through all of the aloof journeying and persistent attempts for Badii to see the religiously mandated need for his grave to be covered fulfilled, Kiarostami still finds a bold way to surprise us. Though admittedly not a cinephile, unpacking the form is central in his films and was always on his mind. He was never afraid to pull back the curtain; in fact, he insisted on it. He never made sequels, but his work tends to bleed into subsequent work. To what degree does Taste of Cherry directly inform and turn up in his next feature, 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us?
Taste of Cherry is the supremely rare film that manages to be both suspenseful and contemplative in equally thorough measures. This dichotomy falls in nicely with the observation by film historian Hamid Naficy that Kiarostami himself was both Iran’s most international filmmaker, and its most local.
Unlike any other Iranian filmmaker (and there are many great ones), he was able to both flare out to a global audience hungry for his work while also depicting lesser known aspects of the deep soul of his own country. He did it all as a man as interested in the mechanics and construction of roads as he was interested in the plight and experiences of children. From there, he developed as an unconventional filmmaker, unfettered by whatever Iran’s restrictions levied, both real and perceived.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray release is a long time coming; a much-needed upgrade from its nearly barebones 1999 DVD edition. Being spine number forty-five in a line that is currently nearing 1050 titles (not counting special box sets, the “Essential Art House” series, and the great Eclipse box set line), Taste of Cherry was in quite a different place when it entered the esteemed collection. With less than two years separating its theatrical debut and its Criterion-ing, Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winner was, at the time, second speediest only to Michael Bay’s 1998 Armageddon (spine number forty) in terms of being fast-tracked thusly.
Now, twenty-one years later and with Kiarostami himself gone since 2015, Taste of Cherry tends to be looked upon as an accepted masterpiece. This edition is a marked improvement in terms of both A/V and bonus features. Whereas the original DVD only had a nineteen-minute video interview with Kiarostami from 1997 (a not-uninteresting piece that remains included, though this time conveniently edited into one continuous piece as opposed to five separate independent chapters), this 2020 re-visitation adds several more goodies, as well as improved cover art (though perhaps a bit too ominous) and a much longer printed-insert essay by the talented film critic A.S. Hamrah.
The most substantial bonus feature is Project, a forty-four-minute short film exercise created by Kiarostami and his filmmaking son, Bahman. In it, we see certain scenes from Taste of Cherry as they are being workshopped, rehearsed and even filmed. These scenes are intercut with completed shots from the film itself.
According to the text description on the disc’s menu, creating accompanying shorts such as this was frequently part of Kiarostami’s process in creating his features. While it’s good to have this as an extra, a little more context on how and why the director was compelled to create shorts such as this would be appreciated. Having seen Taste of Cherry, Project feels redundant and, being in the 4x3 aspect ratio and not the best of condition, a bit unrefined.
Besides the film’s vintage trailer, two recent separate video considerations by film historians Kristen Thompson and Hamid Naficy are included. Thompson’s is a quicker consideration of Kiarostami’s style that was recorded in 2017 for the Criterion Channel. Naficy’s piece is under twenty minutes, and more in-depth in terms of the filmmaker’s history and filmography. For those who’ve gone through the extras on the Koker Trilogy set, much of this information will not be new. But repeat isn’t always a bad thing, and Naficy’s piece covers it quite well, and without lingering.
Kiarostami’s cinema is its own trip, one that some have declared to be “not for everyone”. He’s been rightly labelled a “searcher”, who’s subtle odysseys and stories can be intellectually vertigo-inducing. For the terminally Westernized viewer, if the subtitles don’t get you then the pacing will. Roger Ebert (of all people) declared in his outlying negative review that Kiarostami is spinning his wheels with Taste of Cherry.
In the meantime, plenty of film devotees -- a majority, in fact -- have stepped up to disagree. Insofar as it could ever actually matter (and Kiarostami himself had been known to waver dismissively in his acceptance of such pomp and rankings), this critic, as of now, would be on board with the notion of this one being the director’s demonstrably signature title. However good you may feel the film to be, “the go-to Kiarostami” or not, Criterion has granted a golden opportunity to dig in and assess or re-assess it with this essential Blu-ray edition.
The film is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Visit the official site for more information.