Abbas Kiarostami is preoccupied with my tape recorder. He wonders if it's too far away from where he's sitting. He makes his translator switch from one side of him to the other so that the recorder is between them. After a while, clearly still anxious about it, he picks it up and sets it down on a side table directly next to him. I can't tell if he's really worried about my sound, or if he's obliquely commandeering our conversation. “Where should I go?” I ask, half seriously. “Wherever you want,” he says.
Then, without prompting — “something personal I can tell you” — he relates this to his way of making films. The idea, he says, signature dark glasses perched on a smooth, untilled face that suggests a younger, even more handsome James Caan (both are 72), is to create a situation in which everyone feels most natural, in which the recording device isn't central but secondary to the emotions and interactions at play. “I leave much more freedom than you'd expect to actors,” he says. “I'm not going to be the one to give them instructions. I'll just create the right conditions, the right atmosphere, and then let them live.”
The filmmaker is celebrated for his meticulously conceived shots and sequences — even after 40 years, every composition, every move of his camera is singular and provocative. In his new film, Like Someone in Love, about an unlikely love triangle involving a call girl, her jealous boyfriend and a retired professor, Kiarostami juices tension from a static shot of three people in a car, and pans around a one-bedroom apartment as if it were a previously undiscovered planet.
After spending his entire career in his native Iran, he has been effectively exiled by government crackdowns on speech, the likes of which led to the house arrest of Kiarostami's former protégé Jafar Panahi. These developments would seem potentially crippling for an artist whose work has been so rooted in his homeland, one whose elegant, unobtrusive style seemed so well paired with Iran's spare, arid landscape in Through the Olive Trees, Where the Wind Will Carry Us and Cannes Palme d'Or winner Taste of Cherry.
Yet even when he still made films in Iran, Kiarostami often struggled to get them approved for domestic distribution. That effectively made him a “filmmaker of the world” in terms of audience if not necessarily intent.
With his two most recent films, the Italian-set, French-, English- and Italian-language Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, and the Japanese-language, Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love, he has fully evolved into an auteurist globe-hopper.
Frequent-flyer miles aside, Kiarostami insists that nothing substantial has changed about his art, which also tentacles out to poetry, photography, painting and installations. “I consider cinema a universal language, and I consider human beings as universal beings,” he says. “So there's no reason why people should not be able to relate to a film, or we shouldn't be able to make films, in different languages and different cultures than our own.”
On first look, Certified Copy seemed like a major departure, vaulting the filmmaker from the world of Iranian strivers, hustlers and townsfolk to a pair of strolling, bourgeois Europeans role-playing about marriage. But the film is no less haunted by mortality, and no less preoccupied with our inherent unknowableness, than films like Taste of Cherry and Ten. He again mines existential humor and emotional violence from these themes in Like Someone in Love.
Though defiantly productive in the face of exile, Kiarostami isn't deceiving himself about how he got here. “I can't really say it was as a wish or a personal choice,” he says. “As a door gets closed, there's no point in staying behind it.”
That at least implicitly questions countrymen like Panahi who remained in Iran — and made This Is Not a Film under house arrest. “I'd rather go on and open other doors. You hope for the best to happen, and go through new experiences that help you continue and improve. But I've not closed an open door just for the sake of seeing what's elsewhere.”
But even if he doesn't see his decision to flee as one freely made, he does see wisdom in being where he is — of taking himself to new places and finding new collaborators while remaining true to himself and his art.
I bring up Andrei Tarkovksy, who made his final two masterpieces in Europe after being sidelined in the post-thaw Soviet Union. Kiarostami counters with Woody Allen, a filmmaker “for whom nobody has closed any doors” but who nevertheless has been re-energized by making movies overseas.
“If you're just repeating yourself in the same circles and the same cycle, there is the risk for you of becoming nothing but a technician, and to repeat yourself,” he says. “So you have the need to actually renew yourself. Changing your spot, your language and culture can be the best way to do it.”
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