Taste of Cherry ★★★★½

Roger Ebert famously despised Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winning Taste Of Cherry and poured a veritable bucket of vitriol all over it in his review. Although I don’t want to turn this review into a straight-up rebuttal of Ebert’s take, especially because he has already been shot down by some prominent critics of the time, I will limit myself only to remarking that he may have failed to see the forest for the trees.

From its very opening, Kiarostami’s film informs the viewer they are in for something non-traditional and he openly invites them to acclimate to the film’s tone and pace. It isn’t a familiar three-act drama but rather a meditation on human mortality and fallibility as well as a subtly-woven transversal look at the Iranian society. There is a reason why Kiarostami insists on such long unbroken takes and has us spend nearly twenty minutes of the film before the camera even leaves the protagonist’s car. He isn’t telling a story, but rather painting a picture. Each sentence uttered by the characters on screen is a brushstroke, each person a colour… Therefore, it isn’t all that important what the movie makes one feel as it is still unfolding, because its true meaning can only be revealed once the viewer assumes the correct perspective. I can understand some may find the idea of being subjected to people conversing in a car for prolonged periods of time tedious and perhaps annoying, but this is the language Kiarostami needed to touch on these themes in a way that’s both non-intrusive and illuminating; in other words, poetic.

By effectively dismissing any traditional progression of the narrative, the filmmaker was able to turn this simple story into a multi-dimensional rumination on some truly grand ideas that doesn’t ever cross over into the realm of artistic pretentiousness. However, the structure and tone wouldn’t ever be enough to ensure the resulting film would resonate with the audience so profoundly; this is where the main character Mr. Badii, as well as the way he is portrayed by Homayoun Ershadi, becomes pivotal to this endeavour. That’s because he also isn’t a traditionally-understood character with a story behind his eyes and a conflict to resolve through actions. He is an avatar to encapsulate filmmaker’s thoughts and a surface for the viewer to project theirs. This is perhaps what annoyed Ebert so much, as he couldn’t stand the idea of not knowing why Badii wants to kill himself, what happened in his life, or whether the people he encounters are somehow important to him. It’s irrelevant, because – as I said before – they are not people, but colours. They are themes, ideas and thoughts that exist wholly on a metaphorical plane tucked between the ethereal imagery of sand and dirt reminding the viewer that ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’, which is a concept transcending the boundaries of the Judeo-Christian iconography and exists in most cultures in similar forms.

However, Kiarostami’s delicate poignancy becomes fully apparent only when the main narrative fades to black and the film closes with its unforgettable coda. All of a sudden, the picture quality deteriorates and we see the filmmaker himself; Taste Of Cherry closes by drawing attention to the fact it is a movie, which – interestingly enough – sent the already infuriated Ebert into whole new altitudes of righteous fury. Though, blinded by rage he took Kiarostami’s now-iconic self-awareness as insulting his intelligence. As a result, he failed to notice that Kiarostami wasn’t merely waving his manipulative finger at the viewer, saying ‘gotcha’. He wasn’t undercutting his own perceived profundity but rather bolstering the key message of the film which is ultimately life-affirming. After all, as the Turkish taxidermist, Badii's ultimate passenger, points out – regardless of what happens to us, there is always something to live for. And it is ultimately our decision, conscious or not, to see the world through certain filters. Kiarostami draws attention to this rather subtly by contrasting the way he kept showing the world when it was a movie, coloured by the sepias of the sun-drenched soil, with the same landscapes caught on camcorder blooming with the greens of life, thus leaving the viewer confused but somehow uplifted by the thought that such little things as the refreshing colour of grass, the soothing sound of the wind squeezing past the trees in bloom, or the titular taste of cherries are more than enough to make us see the world differently. Did the protagonist see it? I don’t think we’ll ever know. What mattered to Abbas Kiarostami was that you, the viewer, would.

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