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I had left to kill myself and came back with mulberries!
. . . .Abdolhossein Bagheri in Taste of Cherry
This film has stimulated an unusual amount of controversy right from its inception. To begin with, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami chose a subject, suicide, which is forbidden by the Koran and virtually a taboo subject for discussion in his native country. Were it not for the relaxation in Iranian governmental censorship initiated by then President Khatami, the film would never have seen the light of day. When the film later made its international festival debut at Cannes, the Iranian government made a last minute decision to allow Kiarostami to attend the premiere and he was greeted with a standing ovation as he entered the theater. After the conclusion of the showing, he received another ovation, but it was now interspersed with some boos and hisses. Later, when the film debuted in America, Kiarostami was again the beneficiary of good timing, showing up in Manhattan to promote the film because Iranian President Khatamis agenda included a call for greater cultural exchange between his county and America. Kiarostami also showed up in Minneapolis during that American visit for a retrospective celebrating his work. Critics in the United States have further fanned the flames of controversy in relation to Taste of Cherry. Roger Ebert called the film an emperor without any clothes, excruciatingly boring, and a lifeless drone but Eberts rival Chicagoan critic at the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum, called the film a masterpiece and compared Kiarostamis inventiveness to such cinematic luminaries as Antonioni, Bresson, and Godard. Closer to home, you can find the same vast disparity of opinions nicely reflected in the Epinion reviews already posted for this film. If you stick with me here, Ill leave little doubt as to which side I come down on with respect to the merits of this film.
Historical Background: Abbas Kiarostami, born in 1940 in Teheran, is Irans most highly regarded filmmaker and has been directing films since 1970. Prior to Kiarostamis breakthrough win at Cannes with Taste of Cherry, he was best known in the West for the so-called Earthquake Trilogy consisting of three interwoven films: Where is the Friends House? (1987), Life and Nothing More . . . (1992) (sometimes called And Life Goes On . . .) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). Kiarostamis principal thematic territory is comprised of the struggles of the human psyche. He follows in the humanist tradition of directors like Satyajit Ray. It is partly due to Kiarostamis international acclaim that the Iranian government has initiated a degree of liberalization in the arts and relaxed censorship to some extent.
The Story: Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), an Iranian, drives around the city of Tehran, the slums, and the industrial construction zone on the outskirts of the city looking for a man to help him with a job. We see many men in need of work who offer their services, but Mr. Badii has a unique task in mind, for which he will provide handsome remuneration. Mr. Badii has determined to end his own life (the cause of his despair is never revealed). He has even dug himself a grave among some endless sand mounds outside the city. His plan is to overdose on sleeping pills and lay himself down in the grave. All he requires of an accomplice is that the man come by at 6 am the next morning and call his name twice. If he answers, the accomplice is to help him out of the hole but if he fails to answer, the accomplice is to cover him with twenty shovels of sand. For that small effort, Mr. Badii is prepared to pay the generous sum of 200,000 cash rials.
It is a difficult topic to broach, however, with prospective helpers. The first man he encounters interprets the offer of an opportunity to make some quick money as a homosexual proposition and threatens to beat him up if he persists. Another man working at a junkyard has no interest in earning extra money, being quite content with his present job and what it pays.
Mr. Badii picks up a young Kurdish soldier (Ali Moradi) who needs a lift back to his barracks. He tries to engage the shy young man in conversation about his life back home, his friendships with the other soldiers, and his finances. Badii tries to ingratiate himself with the soldier by illustrating humorously the manner in which he and his old army buddies used to count off to amuse themselves. Badii then gets to his proposal, first emphasizing the generous compensation, but the lad quite naturally wants to know what will be expected of him. Mr. Badii drives the soldier out to the site of the hole, or gravesite, and explains the requirements. The boy repeatedly refuses and finally, fearing Badiis dubious sanity, bolts out of the car and runs off. The idea of shoveling dirt onto a corpse is just too horrible for the young man to contemplate however appealing the monetary compensation might be.
Mr. Badii next encounters a factory guard (Ahman Ansari), of Afghani nationality, in a remote guardhouse amid the dunes. The man cannot leave his post but directs Badii to his friend, another Afghani national, who is a seminarian (in training for the Muslim equivalent of the priesthood) who has come to visit his friend, the guard. Mr. Badii extends the same proposition to the seminarian, but is told flatly that suicide is forbidden by the Koran and several other sources of Muslim doctrine. The seminarian lectures Badii on the immorality of suicide and emphatically refuses any participation.
Now fully disconsolate, Mr. Badii sits by the side of the road near a construction site (in a scene reminiscent of Antonionis Red Desert (1964)) surrounded by stark yellow mounds of sand, breathing the thick dusty swirls. A worker wearing a facemask approaches to ask him to move his car, which is blocking the roadway and the progress of a bulldozer. Mr. Badii is too depressed to even take note of the polite but persistent worker for the longest time, but finally climbs back into his car.
We soon find Mr. Badii engaged in conversation with a third passenger, this time an older man, who is a Turk and a taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolhossein Bagheri). It is apparent that the conversation has already been underway for a while, as we join it, and Mr. Bagheri has already agreed to Mr. Badii's terms. Mr. Bagheri, it seems, has a son in need of expensive medical help and the money offered by Mr. Badii will be of great value and consequence. Mr. Bagheri, who speaks with intelligence and in a calm lyrical voice, explains that Mr. Badii needs to understand how difficult this task will be for him and that he must be allowed, as a friend, to discuss the issue first. After visiting the hole, he redirects Mr. Badii to an alternative return route because its longer but more beautiful. Mr. Badii refuses to discuss the causes of his distress, so Mr. Bagheri does all the talking himself.
He tells Badii about a time when he was similarly close to ending it all. He had gone so far as to choose a rope and a tree by which to hang himself. The tree, however, was a mulberry tree, and, eating one of the mulberries, Bagheri was overwhelmed by the splendor of its taste. He had eaten a second one, which then caused him to notice the beautiful sunny sky and the green foliage. About then a group of school children had come by, laughing and singing and asking Bagheri if he would shake the mulberry tree so that they could gather the fruit. After the children had left, he had gathered many of the mulberries and had returned home, offering them as a gift to his wife, who had also been cheered by the delicious berries. The people on the other side, adds Bagheri, would like to take a look here and you want to rush over there! Dont you ever want to drink water from the spring again? You want to give up the taste of cherries? Mr. Badii listens silently.
Mr. Bagheri, who is Turkish, offers Badii a verse of a Turkish song:
My love, Im flying off, come to me.
Im hounded from my friends garden, come to me.
From happy days before, Ive fallen on hard times, come to me.
Mr. Badii again listens silently, but approaching Mr. Bagheris workplace, where he is to be dropped off, demands to know if he can count on Bagheri fulfilling his promise to appear at the hole at 6 am and cover him with dirt if he has died. Bagheri assures him that he will keep his promise no matter what: We barely know each other. You go, Im your friend. You stay, Ill be your friend too.
SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO THEMES SECTION IF YOU INTEND TO SEE THIS FILM AND WANT TO RETAIN UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE ENDING
Mr. Badii now heads home to his apartment where we see him only in silhouette through a curtain from an outside window. We cant be certain whether he took the sleeping pills or not. As night falls, Badii drives to the sand dunes and lays himself down in his prearranged gravesite, looking up at the moonlit sky. The moon is dancing and shimmering among wisps of ominous dark gray storm clouds. There are flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder. The moon slips behind a dense cloud and all is black. The screen turns completely black and we wonder if this is Badiis death. Sporadic flashes of lightening momentarily light up the screen a few times and we see Badii, still alive and staring toward the heavens. The screen turns black again, for many seconds. We wait. Gradually dawn arrives and we see a squad of soldiers in training, running and chanting as soldiers do. A film crew suddenly appears meandering along the sand hills and in the rear of the group Mr. Badii. The director calls to the soldiers via a walkie-talkie and tells the leader to let them take a break in the shade of the trees lining the road. We watch the soldiers chatting, lying back, kicking dirt playfully, and picking flowers. They are enjoying some gentle camaraderie and natures bounty. We watch for several minutes and then spy the Land Rover driving away in the distance.
Kiarostami had this to say about his twist ending to Taste of Cherry: It was a risk worth taking. Even when I have people arguing about the ending of the film, pro and con, I like that because it means that the movie hasnt really ended, that people keep thinking about it. Count me among the viewers who believe that the ending is exactly as it ought to have been.
Themes: The reviewers who trash this film, quite frankly, have just not paid attention. It is a sad reflection on the incapacity of the American audience to tackle any kind of philosophical theme if not laid out in a blatantly obvious way. One reviewer, for example, complains that Kiarstomi has given us no reason why Badii wants to do this to himself [i.e., suicide]. Similarly, Ebert demands, If were to feel sympathy for Badii, wouldnt it help to know more about him? Still another reviewer argues that the film asks the question, why would any one in good health and being sane want to kill themselves. All of these comments are missing the point of the film. This film is clearly not about why people sometimes want to commit suicide. The film takes as a given that human beings sometimes reach a state of such utter despair and emotional pain that they long for death. Every mental health professional fully understands that people sometimes arrive at a state of emotional crisis, from depression or other causes, resulting in suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, or completed suicides. We dont need to know Badiis reasons; its enough to know that he is in pain. Are we really so hardened that we must know his reasons to feel sympathy for him? Are we only going to feel for him if his reasons meet some arbitrary standard of sufficiency according to our own priorities? No, any empathetic person should feel compassion for another individual who has reached a stage of such utter despair as to contemplate suicide, whatever the specifics of their case.
Taste of Cherry is not asking Why would anyone consider suicide? Instead, its asking the follow-up question: Why should a person not commit suicide despite being in terrible emotional despair? The film then examines three typical replies to that question represented by the soldier, the seminarian, and the taxidermist respectively. And the film effectively passes judgment on the relative merits of the three arguments against suicide. The soldier rejects suicide because he is horrified by the whole idea of it. A suicidal person who shared the soldiers perspective might not commit suicide out of fear of death or revulsion at the notion of killing even their own person. The seminarians objection is on moral grounds its an offense to God, by the dictates of his religions doctrine. A suicidal person who was similarly religious might not commit suicide out of fear of punishment in an afterlife. The problem with these two arguments, even when they succeed in preventing suicide, is that the person stays alive merely out of fear or religious obligation, but the misery quotient of his or her life is unabated.
The third argument against suicide is by far the most worthy and effective one because it is the only one of the three that offers hope that the life preserved will also be rendered happier. Mr. Bagheris argument is that each of us is blessed with just a small window of opportunity to drink in the wonders to this earthly paradise to which we have been delivered. Why prematurely surrender the inestimable joys of watching the moon, drinking spring water, gazing at a sunset, examining a tree, or tasting a cherry? What is the hurry to get to that state of non-perception that is death when we have an eternity of nonexistence, before birth and after death, and just a few moments, relatively speaking, of lush existence? Mr. Bagheri says, Change your outlook! Stop and smell the roses and taste the mulberries and you can experience life with joy. The beauty of Mr. Bagheris argument against suicide is that it is based on learning a positive approach to living rather than merely suffering through life out of fear or duty. To understand this argument is to sense the films greatness. No one who learns to revel in lifes small marvels and to live with zest and zeal will ever seriously contemplate suicide. This is no trivial theme. Albert Camus once said that suicide is the only philosophical problem. Put another way, the question Why is life worth living? is the core question of our existences. Badii's great epiphany came from understanding Bagheris view that life is an opportunity to be cherished.
Dont be misled by those who interpret this film as primarily political allegory or a political statement. Taste of Cherry is not a slap at homosexuality as Ebert seems to imagine. Its not about Iranian women suffering under the terrible burden of having to wear head scarves as one reviewer opines. And its not about defiance of conservative standards in the Islamic Republic of Iran as another imagines. Kiarostami has reached much deeper than transient political agendas into the heart of human existence.
Production Values: Kiarostami and his cinematographer, Homayon Payvar, somehow managed to massage some magnificent cinematic shots out of a sparse and dismal landscape. There are shots of a sunset, the moon behind clouds, a tree-lined roadway, and a sandstorm that are utterly gorgeous and capture the kind of beauty in nature to which Bagheri refers in his case for living.
Ershadis performance in Taste of Cherries was superlative, especially considering how it occurred. He provides us with a clear sense of Badiis unspeakable anguish and resolution to die. Kiarostami underscores Badiis sense of insignificance by juxtaposing him against the massively overwhelming backdrop of mountains and an endless vista of empty sand dunes. Ershadi was the only professional actor used in the film and he never even met the other performers! Much of the sparse dialog occurs in the Land Rover between Ershadis character and his various passengers, but, in reality, it was the director that was always in the seat opposite the individual being filmed. In an interview, Kiarostami explained this technique in relation to the young man, Ali Moradi, who played the soldier: What we were doing wasnt impressing him as being the shooting of a real movie. Because what he was witnessing was me sitting across from him and talking to him. . . He kept asking, Why dont you tell me what my part is? All the time, we were shooting the actual scenes with him. I gave him no information about what we were doing, so whatever reaction you see from him in the film is his real reaction. One time, I asked him, Could you get me a box of chocolates from the dashboard? And when he opened the dashboard, there was a knife in there. And I had used the knife already to cut a pomegranate, so there was some red on the blade. So thats how I got the horrified reactions you see in the film.
Bottom-Line: Despite being a slow and introspective film, Taste of Cherry is anything but boring. It is alive with tension, from start to finish. This is as luminous and powerful a depiction as youll ever encounter of the human spirit in mortal danger. Though dealing with the issue of despair, the message in the end is suitably upbeat, as it should be. This film should serve notice to all that Kiarostami is one of the top film directors currently working. I highly recommend this film. Taste of Cherry is in Farsi with optional English subtitles. The Criterion DVD transfer is magnificent as with the vast majority of Criterion releases. The running time is 95 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Iran:
The White Balloon
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age