(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
Another stop on the long journey through the classics that I've passed over, and an immensely satisfying one. What can I say? Kiarostami is a master, and this film only further solidifies my admiration for his work, which started with (and which may never be surpassed) the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Close-Up. Here, we see a relatively straightforward narrative of a man on a mission - he's determined to die, but he needs assistance with the burial, and on the sliver of a chance that he survives the night with a bellyful of sleeping pills, someone to help him out of the grave. Kiarostami keeps the camera set-ups simple, and the action is repetitive in a poetic way - Mr. Badii has meandering conversations with a few individuals before finding one who will help him, and there are long sequences of dialogue that take place in Badii's Land Rover, which we see wending its way through the dusty hills outside of Tehran. The pace is slow, but there's an intensity produced by the performances, which are consistently excellent. Homayoun Ershadi's Mr. Badii is a model of simmering anguish, a portrayal that projects determination, despair, exhaustion and urgency all at once, without a single instant of excess technique. His would-be accomplices, most of whom appear to be non-actors, are similarly excellent, and the movie deserves gushy accolades just for containing such top-notch and affecting performances.
Kiarostami's MO is fascinating, and seems to work through the combination of parable-like simplicity with a realist, almost documentarian taste for detail and patient observation. How he manages to get such excellent performances without making them distracting, and frame the action so simply yet so profoundly, is a delicious mystery. Amid the current international turmoil and recent focus on the pitfalls of artistic expression in contemporary Iran, its interesting to see a film that plays its political cards so close to the vest, but the effect is invigorating and further underscores Kiarostami's genius. There's a subtle commentary at work here on the economic separations between different classes in Iran, but the main focus is on the metaphysical conditions of the characters - a free-floating loneliness that they deal with in varying ways, but which seems to be a common thread in their lives.
Of course, there's the bemusing ending, which defies all the inevitable speculations on what will happen, and relieves the considerable suspense that's been generated at that point. I'm not sure I get it - my first response was that it was tacked-on, a po-mo flourish to avoid the obvious creative decisions, none of which would have been easy: does he live? Does he die? Do we get to find out one way or the other? Kiarostami opts for something like the third choice, leaving us some uncertainty but allowing a mood of redemption and a potential solution to the crisis that has befallen Mr. Badii. We may never know what he found so unbearable in life, but Kiarostami seems to be suggesting that in relating his story, and some of the apparatus used in re-creating it, there is another way to live. Art might hold the answer, or an answer, even if it isn't the one we think we are seeking.