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Oblique Strategies 

The enigma of Abbas Kiarostami

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
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In his 1989 film Homework, the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is, characteristically, heard but not seen as he quizzes a succession of nervous little boys with enormous dark eyes about how they carry out their after-school assignments. To Western ears, their cagey answers show them to be well-behaved to a fault: Homework, an unrelieved diet of dictation and number crunching, comes before all play activity; delays guarantee a beating from the boys’ mostly illiterate parents. Just as you’re growing restless and wondering how much longer this rote consistency is going to continue, you start to catch on that a picture is forming of an overcontrolled and zealously indoctrinated generation, which, as one parent who has lived abroad worries, will grow up cheerless and devoid of creative impulse unless the children “get naughty and think of a way to resist this regulation.”

The parallels with Iran’s militant Islamic regime — not the least of whose sins after the revolution of 1979 was to slap a censorious lid on a flowering national cinema pioneered, among others, by Kiarostami — are irresistible. They also, as the director’s unobtrusively witty editorial strategies imply, don’t tell the whole story. For though we see the boys herded into the schoolyard to chant “Saddam followers are doomed” and other attractive slogans of Iran’s war with Iraq, we also hear them warm warily to Kiarostami’s probing into whether they escape to watch television cartoons, as he keeps cutting away from their anxious faces to a medium shot of a cameraman. A sly hint that film can be as much the enemy of spontaneity as parents and teachers? That all ideologies, no matter how watertight, eventually leak? That every documentary is to some degree a liar — and none the worse for it? That’s for you to judge. Enigma is germane to Kiarostami’s intentions: What’s absent is as palpable a presence as what you actually see.

Homework, one of several rarely seen entries in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s fine Kiarostami retrospective, which includes a collection of his short films, is about as overtly political as his work gets, and not just because he has to worry about the censor. It’s true that the Iranian new wave has been constrained by political and religious repression. Still, what began as ingenious ploys for conveying social critique and overcoming shoestring budgets — the blurring of documentary and fiction, the use of children to evoke an intimacy forbidden between adults, and the focus on small details of everyday life as a filter for public events — has grown into a sophisticated film aesthetic that draws its vitality from a profoundly deceptive simplicity, in which silence, space and the adroit use of street clatter stir an emotional intensity no mere script can muster. Kiarostami counts among his major influences Theo Angelopoulos, Andrei Tarkovsky and the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and as with those filmmakers, you have to slow yourself down, abandon your Hollywood-trained expectation of narrative payoff and surrender to the serene stillness — his inspiration is not the realist novel but the pauses, elisions and distant voices of painting and poetry — with which his camera observes the noisiest lives.

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If Iranian cinema has gotten especially good at making a virtue of necessity, so have its subjects — ordinary folk making do, and making dreams out of lives blighted by almost indescribable hardship. Nowhere is that more true than in Kiarostami’s so-called “Earthquake Trilogy,” which begins with the delightful 1987 film Where Is My Friend’s House?, about a boy trying to return a notebook to a schoolmate in a neighboring village, and ends with the lovely Through the Olive Trees, the movie that won the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and set up its director as a darling of the foreign-film circuit. The retrospective doffs its cap to Kiarostami’s subsequent fame with Taste of Cherry (1997), another Palme d’Or winner, and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), both of which have enjoyed art-house runs in Los Angeles. But if you see only one film in the series, let it be the second in the trilogy, And Life Goes On, which returns to the beautiful region where Kiarostami shot Where Is My Friend’s House? to seek out that film’s two young “actors” after the devastating earthquake of 1990. This movie’s “set” is as heart-stoppingly real as can be — village after village reduced to rubble, inhabitants shell-shocked by the loss of their homes and families (one man impassively counts 65 relatives dead) but improvising a return to normality under cruelly abnormal circumstances.

And Life Goes On, an apt enough working title for any Kiarostami movie, presents itself as a documentary, but it has a film tucked within the film proper, a popular device among Iranian directors for allowing contrasting realities to talk to one another. We don’t know what’s scripted and what’s not (Kiarostami is famous for his two-page screenplays), only that the director and his son are played by actors, whose role is both to appreciate and to interrogate the villagers’ sustaining belief that the disaster was an act of “God’s will.” The “director” is reduced to silence by what he sees and hears, stunned that a young man went on with his wedding plans despite having lost half his extended family. As always, the young are a source of instinctive candor and wisdom: The director’s son challenges one villager’s fatalism, but ultimately he shares the local preoccupation with who was playing whom in the World Cup when the quake struck. Humor in Kiarostami provides more than relief; it’s a philosophy of life-going-on, the grand comic drama of the everyday. His is a Sisyphean vision, abounding in long shots of tiny figures toiling like ants up dusty, winding country roads or racing on some private mission through the warrenlike alleys of Iranian towns and villages. There is a payoff, but it amounts to no more, and no less, than a shift in perspective.

And Life Goes On is dedicated to the victims of the earthquake, and like most of Kiarostami’s work, it’s a wry tribute to ordinary people failing to achieve the goals they so obsessively pursue, stubbornly persevering against all odds and absorbing new dimensions of experience along the way. In Kiarostami’s first dramatic feature, The Traveler, made in 1974 during a boom in European-influenced Iranian filmmaking, a boy desperate to attend a soccer game in Tehran swindles his parents and his friends in a succession of moneymaking ventures, one of which entails taking pictures of his classmates with an empty camera. What you carry away from the movie is not the outcome of his efforts, but the little boys’ faces, staring with shy pride at the lens. (In the same program, there’s a funny and touching short video chronicling Kiarostami’s return, years later, to see what became of the young thug-in-training.) Taste of Cherry has a middle-aged man bent on suicide driving around the hills in search of someone to assist him, his despair interrupted by conversations, comically practical and existential, with the strangers whose help he would enlist. And a puckishly mounted double bill of two works by Kiarostami and his friend Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Close-Up (1990) and A Moment of Innocence (1996), reflects with a tender hilarity on the process of filmmaking and the line that blurs fiction and what we’re pleased to call reality. “We can never get close to the truth,” Kiarostami has said, “except by lying.” He’s one of the most truthful liars we have.

SEEING WITH BORROWED EYES: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami | At the LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., April 13–28

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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