There is the old, and often neglected, nostrum about 'gilding the lily.' I was reminded of this while watching Abbas Kiarostami's acclaimed Ta'm e guilass / Taste of Cherry, co-winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Even though Taste of Cherry comes close to being a great film for the bulk of its 99 minutes (not the oft-claimed 95 minutes), its much-discussed ending – the breaking the fourth wall (à la Ingmar Bergman in the 1960s) to reveal what has just been witnessed is all a film – is one of the worst endings in a quality motion picture I've ever seen. Perhaps, it's even worse than the tacked-on uplifting ending in Akira Kurosawa's otherwise stellar Rashomon.
The basic problem is that, unlike in Bergman's run of self-conscious films (Persona, Vargtimmen / Hour of the Wolf, Skammen / Shame), the big 'revelation' that the film is a film comes after we've sat through it. Worse yet, the breaking of the fourth wall undermines the penultimate scene, which would qualify Taste of Cherry as an overall great film.
Critics, pro and con, have prattled on about Kiarostami's meaning and intent – he produced, wrote, and edited, as well as directed it – in the videotaped (not filmed) ending showing verdant hills (contrasting with the rest of the film's ruddy barren rock landscapes), but always seem to miss the result: Regardless of what Kiarostami meant, that ending emotionally deflates the whole story.
They claim that Kiarostami abnegates preachiness, shows his disdain for tearjerking, and follows some profound psychological reasoning for revealing the film's fictive nature at its end, all the while displaying his desire to make indeterminacy the film's major motif.
Yet, before its conclusion, Taste of Cherry is not preachy, jerks no tears, is clearly fictive, and the penultimate scene spells out indeterminacy far more powerfully and cogently than the actual ending. When confronted by such realities as this, it is always amusing to watch fans of an artist alibi for his failure when the simplest answer is simply failure itself. In other words, Kiarostami did not believe enough in his film to let it end at its best point. And what the filmmaker desired to achieve, if anyone aside from himself could divine such a thing, is immaterial to the viewer.
The tale is rather simple, set somewhere between the best of a 1950s Rod Serling script for The Twilight Zone and an Absurdist drama:
A dour fortysomething man, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, who looks like a Persian Hank Azaria), drives in a Range Rover through the outskirts of a small Iranian desert town (some critics claim it is Tehran, but it seems too small and deserted, and the film never explicitly pins down its location) and queries three different people if they would do 'a job' for him. (His offer had already been refused by several others in the film's opening moments.)
The job is to check up on him the next morning, in a grave that he has dug. They are to see if he is dead or alive, after he has taken a bottle of sleeping pills. If alive, they will assist him out of his grave. If dead, they will heap dirt on his corpse. For this task he offers a vast sum, 200,000 tomans – apparently worth more than six months of the average Iranian wage - indicating he is a man of wealth and power.
Manifestly, Badii does not really want to die, as most attempted suicides really represent a cry for help. If he wanted to die he'd kill himself and not care what happened to his corpse. This concern, however, reveals his true neediness; albeit from a source only guessed at.
My first thought, as Badii drives around looking for men to assist him, is that he likes young men, for the first person he picks up is a Kurdish soldier (Afshin Khorshid) barely out of his teens. When the young man is driven to the freshly dug grave, he runs away as fast as he can. Kiarostami wisely does not allow Badii to reveal his intent right away, and the first episode with the soldier – shots of the two of them driving and talking – lasts well over half an hour, a third of the film's length. Another wise choice Kiarostami makes is to never reveal the source behind Badii's suicidal anguish.
He is similarly rejected by a young seminarist (Mir Hossein Noori) from Afghanistan, whom he meets when he arrives at an abandoned factory. Some nice philosophical exchanges occur, but when the seminarist rejects the request, Badii drives to the center of a huge construction site and sits near where they are dumping excavated rock. A worker then asks him to move and we get an effectively placed ellipsis.
The next thing we se is Badii's car, from high above, yet the third man he picks up is talking. We go several minutes before even seeing the man's face, which shows Kiarostami building tension, for this man is amenable to the request, and we want to see what sort of man or monster would assist Badii. He is just an old Turk taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), who needs the money for his own child's medical bills. He regales Badii with a joke and a tale of how in 1960 he himself had been prevented from committing suicide by the taste of cherries from a tree. He has also killed some quails for his job at the Museum of Natural History.
It is worth noting that none of the three would-be executioners Badii picks up are ethic Iranians, but minority groups from other countries, a point that no published critic I've read seems to have noted. As the film ends, Badii seems to have second thoughts, for after dropping off the old Turk at his job, he pursues him and asks him to make extra sure he is dead before heaping the dirt on him. He then walks off, satisfied, and watches the sun set. He then makes his way to the grave, gets in, then the screen goes black for a while, and we seem to hear rain, the sign of life's renewal. Then, the fourth wall is unfortunately, and superfluously, broken.
The landscape where this film was shot is simply gorgeous, abounding in orange and russet hues that could pass for the planet Mars, as well as providing a stark depiction of the emptiness that Badii must feel. They also remind one of the abandoned landscapes of 1950s Italian Neo-Realist films. Also, we almost never see Badii and his would be gravediggers in the same shot, and never while in the vehicle. Badii is alone and apart from the rest of humanity, in all ways. Also, until the last moments, we never see the hole that Badii has dug, and even then we only see the portion his head lays in.
While most critics have picked up on the manifest rightness or wrongness of suicide as being a theme of Taste of Cherry, the deeper question is really whether or not a person will violate their own code of ethics to help another person in pain? The former question is open to each person's inner personal debate, while the latter seems to have itself answered in the affirmative, even if it takes some doing.
One might, therefore, consider Taste of Cherry an optimistic film. This is further bolstered by the fact that rain renews at film's end, and that all the dour proceedings we have witnessed are rendered emotionally moot since Kiarostami won't even let the viewer suspend their disbelief after the blackness. Not that the blackout ending would have been so deep nor original, but it is leagues above the final appendix.
Some bad critics claim that the film's appended ending is anti-escapist and rhapsodize on every second of frame to avoid the basic reality that it's an appalling artistic choice – one that reveals that Kiarostami probably wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. Thus, he could make multiple claims at the film's end, without committing to one. In fact, the ending is the ultimate form of escapism for all that the viewer has been asked to emotionally invest in beforehand is revealed as nothing of deeper consequence than a philosophical posit. Thus, all the characters are not 'real' – even though, of course, we know this from the start. Worst of all, the film ends with Louis Armstrong playing a maudlin jazz trumpet on St. James Infirmary, one of the most atrocious artistic mismatches between imagery and sound captured on film.
Even Roger Ebert, whose film criticisms are as scattershot as any critic's that I have ever read, grew tired of Kiarostami's seeming game playing with the audience:
“I am not impatiently asking for action or incident. What I do feel, however, is that Kiarostami's style here is an affectation; the subject matter does not make it necessary, and is not benefited by it. If we're to feel sympathy for Badhi, wouldn't it help to know more about him? To know, in fact, anything at all about him? What purpose does it serve to suggest at first he may be a homosexual? (Not what purpose for the audience – what purpose for Badhi himself? Surely he must be aware his intentions are being misinterpreted.) And why must we see Kiarostami's camera crew – a tiresome distancing strategy to remind us we are seeing a movie? If there is one thing Taste of Cherry does not need, it is such a reminder: The film is such a lifeless drone that we experience it only as a movie.”
While I disagree with Ebert's overall rejection of the total film and his claim regarding the homosexuality gambit, I find his anger over the breaking of the fourth wall is justified, as is his claim of affectation – even if I do not feel the film is a lifeless drone. Ebert also disseminates the tale that Kiarostami filmed Taste of Cherry with the director himself asking non-actors to bury him, thus why we do not see Badii in the same shots with the others. This story, however, is disputed by other critics.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is quite good, for it is a beautiful transfer, in 1.66:1 aspect ratio. On the other hand, the only extras are a filmography, a trailer, and an 18-minute interview with the director during which he talks of censorship, his love of films that make one want to doze off (he succeeded with this film, with me, incidentally), and Quentin Tarantino. No audio commentary was made, and that is a shame, as is the fact that the film is presented only in its subtitled version.
Taste of Cherry has moments of rapturous, almost pure cinema, where the visuals alone sustain the film, though that quality and its often clever script are undone by the ending. It does not ruin the film completely, but it does keep Taste of Cherry from being great. The ending plays out as an attempt at innovation when, in reality, it was already decades old – as well as being an inappropriate choice.
Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry views human beings through both telescopic and microscopic lenses. Which one is the most revealing is debatable. That such an innovative approach is substantially hindered by the poor ending is a shame, even if it as human as the dilemma it traces.
© Dan Schneider
Ta'm e guilass / Taste of Cherry (1997). Dir. / Scr.: Abbas Kiarostami. Cast: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Mir Hossein Noori.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.