THE BIG PICTURE: A Taste of Cherry Abbas Kiarostami (PG)
A Taste of Cherry

Abbas Kiarostami (PG)

Though the British media still make a fuss about the Cannes Film Festival, its top award, the Palme d'Or, isn't expected to do much for a film's performance at the box office.

As this year's festival recedes into the distance, the joint winner of last year's Palme is only just being squeezed on to British screens - when, with the World Cup looming, no one much is expected to go to the cinema.

(It's surely no coincidence that the week's three other non-studio releases, Dad Savage, Hurricane Streets and Nowhere, have all been on the shelf since last year, waiting for a moment when the nation's screens weren't clogged with the latest Hollywood product.)

That said, does represent a unique marketing challenge for a film distributor. In precis, it sounds like the multiplex-goer's worst nightmare - a subtitled art movie.

For 98 minutes, a man drives round the outskirts of Tehran, looking for someone to help him commit suicide. Louis Malle's 1963 classic Le Feu Follet may have explored similarly bleak subject-matter, but it softened the pill with a glamorous cast (no film with Jeanne Moreau can be entirely depressing) and melancholy Satie piano music.

There are no such concessions in . In the smog-diffused light of the afternoon sun, a middle-aged man, Mr Badii, sits at the wheel of his Range Rover. He has an interesting face, with deepset eyes and an aristocratic profile - which is lucky, because we'll be seeing a lot of it over the next hour and a half.

Spotting a man by the side of the road, Badii stops and offers him first a lift, then money. Sensing a sexual advance, the man sends him packing. Badii tries again, and picks up a Kurdish soldier on his way back to barracks.

After driving him around, he makes his proposition. It's not sex he's after. Instead he points out a tree beside the road, and asks the soldier to come there the following morning. Badii will be lying in a shallow grave; if there's no reply when the soldier calls out his name, he must fill the grave in. In return he will be given 200,000 tomans.

In an American film, the plot would thicken at this point. But here the soldier runs away, and Badii has to start again.

Next he picks up an Afghan seminary student, who refuses his request on religious grounds. Then an older man, a taxidermist, agrees to help: he needs the money to look after his anaemic child. But first he tells Badii the story of his own suicide attempt.

Trying to hang himself from a mulberry tree, he reached out and accidentally grasped a handful of berries, a reminder of the simple pleasures of life which he proved reluctant to give up. The correspondingly simple pleasures of the film - watching people's faces, listening to their stories, gazing at the landscape - are in turn what convince us that the old man is right.

With each passenger, Badii points out the same tree. Kiarostami has a striking way of shooting landscapes so that they fill the frame, with no room for sky. The rhythm soon grows hypnotic, as Kiarostami (editor as well as writer, producer and director) cuts between a simple repertoire of four basic shots: Badii at the wheel; what he can see through the windscreen; the passenger in the seat beside him; and the occasional long shot of the Range Rover moving through the dusty landscape.

But he never shows driver and passenger together. This could be seen as an aesthetic decision, to emphasise the gulf between them. But in fact it's because for half the shoot the actor playing Badii wasn't there; it was Kiarostami himself interviewing the people he picked up in his car. As in Close Up (1990) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), the last two of his films to be released in the UK, the director enjoys exploring the grey area between fiction and "real life". While Badii is played by an actor, the other characters are non-professionals, presumably playing themselves.

The fact that you have time to think about these things is part of the film's fascination: it's at once simple and highly complex. After the barrage of obviousness offered by most American films, it's refreshing to find your mind wandering, unsure of what's real and what's invented - and whether it matters. It may also help to explain why film theorists wax lyrical about Kiarostami.

But for all that I'm not totally convinced that anyone reading this column wouldn't have a more rewarding time going to see The Wedding Singer. Kiarostami never lets us know why Badii wants to die. More frustratingly, he never even lets on whether he does succeed in killing himself.

Instead, he cuts abruptly to grainy video footage of the film crew wrapping up the shoot while the actor who plays Badii, Homayon Ershadi, relaxes and lights up a cigarette. This feels like a cop-out, a disappointingly tricksy ending for a film whose main virtues are its directness and utter lack of pretence.

Without the lyricism of Through the Olive Trees, the playfulness of Close Up, or even the innocence of Where Is My Friend's House? (1987), ends up as the world's most ascetic shaggy-dog story. (And why , when it's specifically mulberries that persuaded the taxidermist to go on living?)

Once again, as with David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Maurice Pialat's Under Satan's Sun, it seems as if the right man won the Palme d'Or - but for the wrong film.