Film: Mulberries and the meaning of life

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Training Officer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Training Officer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

    Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary

    £17000 - £17800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to work ...

    Recruitment Genius: Ad Ops Manager - Up to £55K + great benefits

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a digital speci...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent