Kiarostami has been a tireless composer in experimenting over the last two decades by using different means of image and sound technique, which is entwined masterly with the mood and narration, in order to make us see the unseen and absent.
What were seen? None knows, none ever shall know.
Only this is sure—the sight were other ….
– Robert Browning
In his beautiful novella The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has asserted that what’s essential is invisible to the eye. Abbas Kiarostami seems to be the master of it as most of his famous work put us in mind of this truth frequently, and in the course of doing so, landscape stands out as one of his powerful weapons. In most of his films there have been attempts to build the aesthetics of landscape as a representational strategy to unveil the subtext, the invisible essential. The picturesque looking relationship between the landscape and the narration offers us the scope of looking at its inner untamed beauty and reestablishes the specialty of cinema, as Erwin Panofsky has observed it, in the dynamization of space and specialization of time. In his indefatigable journey of searching beauty-truth in the frame of historical factuality, image of Iranian landscapes, both rural and urban, is used prolifically and significantly.
I would like to ponder over here the extent to which the use of landscape has contributed to the esthetic in two of his chef-d’oeuvres – Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Interestingly, in both the films the theme is common, although in a different way, – death. We will see how landscape becomes an integral part of Kiarostamis’s treatment in these two films one by one.
Taste of Cherry is a story of the last few hours of a lonely middle aged man, Mr Badii, who wishes to give up his life, and there is no possible retreat. Interestingly, the protagonist never reveals the reason behind this drastic step. He keeps searching for the prospecting candidates who could bury him after death. Therefore he decides to move on towards the hilly outskirts where the people are relatively simple, and probably honest. He drives slowly out of the city and soon discovers a desolated vista, which in some places is quite beautiful and in others – somber and monotonous. The recurring images of the protagonist’s face bridges the transition from the city groove to this wretched landscape, contrapuntal to his fallow mindscape. We get a chance to move on along with him over the terrain which is dried out by heat and spotted with ugly construction sites and the mesmerizing bulldozers. To boot, the long shots have been used frequently to capture the hard reality of this deserted and deadly landscape, reminding me the lines of Eliot immediately:
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Interestingly, Badii chooses a relatively quite and pristine site for his burial, as if serenity would herald his ultimate ruin. These contrasting images of landscape reveal the essentials, with which I started this article, to establish the plastic.
The eerie landscapes are made visible through distant overhead shots of Badii’s car roaming across the terrain in order to create a visual distance; however the sound always has its role to play in the foreground. This is typical Kiarostami, always trying to establish a distance between the audience and the characters to make ourselves free from being just a slave to the director’s world. The juxtaposition of the images of landscapes taken from inside the car and outside gives us the portrait of the livelihood of the simple common men working on the terrain, how shattered and vulnerable their lives are. Kiarostami repeats the same scenes and images of devastating landscape quite often here, which initially may disturb and then arrest. The contrasting images of greenery also are used to some extent, signifying the author’s deliberate intention to overlay colors step by step to develop the dark tone, exhibiting similar to Paul Klee’s paintings. Against the backdrop of the shoddy and uninhabited terrain Kiarostami raises the questions of life and death and invites us to be a part of the narration and share the burden of story telling.
The film ends with an epilogue where, unexpectedly, a video footage is used. To me, it’s a coup de grace. The shot lingers over the hillside landscape where the crew filming the soldiers jogging and the director is gearing up for a sound take. The final credit appears with the tunes of Luis Amstrong’s instrumental version of “St James Infirmary”. Again the landscape is effectively mixed with the soundscape to depict the continuation of life – even though Badii takes his life, which we never know, everything would be remaining the same, and therefore, suicide is no solution. This might be the message Kiarostami wants to offer by eliminating the grotesque and introducing the video footage, which may look like a different film altogether. This audio-visual image leaves us to take cognizance of the dialectical factuality that cinema can offer.
Kiarostami’s creative and unconventional use of landscape reaches at its ultimate high in The Wind Will Carry Us. The name of the film renders a direct reference to Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad’s poem, therefore it is easily understood that the image-sound-narration synthesis here will take the form of poetry. The central theme of Taste of Cherry – mortality and the state of being buried recurs in The Wind Will Carry Us in a different manner. However, the motif of birth also does play a significant role here. Now what is to be examined with the use of landscape, different kind of landscape in contrast to Taste of Cherry. This is a story of a reporter, Behzad, pretending to be an engineer, who travels to a remote village to shoot the funeral rites of an old woman about to die. The opening scene of the film, the long shot taken from the hill top and we see the journalist’s car is moving through the zigzag way – in my mind the Farrokhzad’s lines come out of the frames:
The wind will take us away
The wind will take us away.
The picturesque quality of the images establishes the relationship between the surrounding beauty and the conniver Behad’s character in the very beginning. He seems to have withdrawn from his surroundings completely, keeping only his daunting ‘task’ in mind.
The use of landscape paves the way for us to explore a remote village clinging on to a mountain. The lifestyle here is different compared to that of Taste of Cherry, but the underlying spirituality remains same. We ought to seek the factuality of beauty not in the result, but in the way of achieving the result. Long shots are a common factor in this film also, but here the ontology of these picturesque images reveals the unseen which is different in mood. We can easily engage with the material and spiritual connections between the modes of the shots of the landscape and the exploitation that the reporter and his friends, or in general, the media, exercise. Behad pretends to be an engineer; he cares nothing about the life-song of the simple villagers, even he is not ready to be patient with his child guide, a village boy. Here we may draw a similarity between Badii and Behad – both of them have been isolated from the surroundings of different nature, and their intentions are also dissimilar. This contrasting attitudes seem ‘like an image’ because of the clever transformation of the shots by the director. In one scene, viewed from a high angle, Behad accidentally drops a green apple which rolls on through a zigzag trajectory, a pattern that recurs in many of the Kiarostami’s work and also, in the very opening scene of this film and the last. This goes well with the poetic treatment of this text and there lies the invisible essential. Behad’s run towards the hilltop every time when he receives a call from his boss, top angle shot of the hole where a man is busy in digging, long shot of the tormented village houses – all contribute to the image-like reality, making us interested in the life of the simple and industrious villagers whose apparent normalcy has been disturbed by the sudden presence of these reporters.
Both the films deal with a common theme, but the treatment and use of picturesque image is different, so to speak, to cognize the essential not only through subtexts but also through the aesthetic peculiarities of those images. Paul Klee feels that “art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see”. Kiarostami has been a tireless composer in experimenting over the last two decades by using different means of image and sound technique, which is entwined masterly with the mood and narration, in order to make us see the unseen and absent. Landscape serves as a metaphor in these two films, offering the gossamer threads which will enable us to divine the abstraction of transitoriness.
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