- Taste of Cherry (1997) movie review: Abbas Kiarostami’s cleverly written and impressively shot existential drama is seriously marred by a disastrous final scene.
Taste of Cherry 1997 review: Breaking of fourth wall almost ruins Abbas Kiarostami’s otherwise effective suicide drama
There is that old and often neglected nostrum about “gilding the lily.” I was reminded of this while watching Abbas Kiarostami’s acclaimed Taste of Cherry / Ta’m e guilass, co-winner (with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel) 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 of the fourth wall (à la Ingmar Bergman in the 1960s) to reveal that what has just been witnessed is a film – is one of the worst finales in a quality motion picture I’ve ever seen. It’s perhaps even worse than the tacked-on uplifting ending in Akira Kurosawa’s otherwise stellar Rashomon.
The basic problem is that, unlike what’s seen in Bergman’s run of self-conscious 1960s films (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame), the big “revelation” that Taste of Cherry is a film comes after we’ve sat through it.
Emotionally deflating ending
Critics, pro and con, have prattled on about Kiarostami’s meaning and intent – he produced, wrote, and edited, as well as directed Taste of Cherry – in the videotaped (not filmed) ending showing verdant hills (contrasting with the rest of the film’s barren rock landscapes), but they always seem to miss the result: Regardless of what Kiarostami meant, the ending emotionally deflates the whole story.
Some claim that, through the final scene, 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 its 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 facts, it’s always amusing to watch fans of an artist alibi for his failure when the simplest answer is failure itself.
In other words, Abbas Kiarostami did not believe enough in his film to let it end at its best point. What the filmmaker desired to achieve, if anyone aside from himself could divine such a thing, is immaterial to the viewer.
The Taste of Cherry tale is rather simple, set somewhere between the best of a Rod Serling The Twilight Zone script 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 and queries three different people if they would do a “job” for him.
The job is to check up on him the next morning – in a grave that he has dug – to see if he is dead or alive after taking a bottle of sleeping pills. If alive, they will assist him out of the 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 that he is a man of wealth and power.
Badii doesn’t really want to die. If he wanted to die, he’d kill himself and not care what happened to his corpse. This concern reveals his 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 (Safar Ali Moradi) barely out of his teens. But when the young man is driven to the freshly dug grave, he runs away as fast as he can.
Kiarostami wisely doesn’t allow Badii to reveal his intent right away; the first episode with the soldier – shots of the two of them driving and talking – lasts well over half an hour, or a third of the film’s length. Another wise choice is to never reveal the source behind Badii’s suicidal anguish.
He is similarly rejected by a young seminarist (Mir Hossein Noori) from Afghanistan, but the third man he picks up is amenable to the request. He is just an old Azeri taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), in need of money for his own child’s medical bills. While together, he regales Badii with a tale of how in 1960 he himself had been prevented from committing suicide by the taste of mulberries from a tree.
It’s worth noting that none of the three would-be executioners Badii picks up are “ethnic Persians.” Instead, they belong to minority groups.
As the film ends, Badii seems to have second thoughts, for after dropping off the old Azeri at his job, he pursues him and asks him to make extra sure he is dead before heaping the dirt on him.
After watching the sun set, he makes his way to the grave and gets in. The screen goes black for a while and we seem to hear rain, the sign of life’s renewal.
Then, the fourth wall is superfluously broken.
Assisted suicide ethics
The landscape where Taste of Cherry was shot is 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. It also reminds one of the abandoned landscapes of 1950s Italian neorealist films.
Something else: 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 addition, we never see the hole that Badii has dug until the last moments, and even then only the portion his head lays in.
While most critics have picked up on the rightness or wrongness of suicide as a Taste of Cherry theme, the deeper question is whether or not a person will violate their own code of ethics to help another person in pain. The former issue is open to each individual’s inner personal debate while the latter seems to have been answered in the affirmative, even if it takes some doing.
Therefore, one might consider Taste of Cherry an optimistic film. This is further bolstered by the rain at the end and by the fact that all the dour proceedings we have witnessed are rendered emotionally moot since Kiarostami won’t let viewers suspend their disbelief after the blackness.
Not that the blackout ending would have been deep or original, but it’s leagues above the final appendix. Kiarostami wanted to have his cake and eat it too; thus, he could make multiple claims at the film’s end without committing to one.
Besides, the Taste of Cherry ending is the ultimate form of escapism; after all, everything that the viewer has been asked to emotionally invest in beforehand is revealed as nothing of deeper consequence than a philosophical posit. Thus, the characters aren’t “real” – even though, of course, we know this from the start.
Worse yet, we next hear Louis Armstrong playing a maudlin jazz trumpet on St. James Infirmary – one of the most atrocious artistic mismatches between imagery and sound ever captured on film.
Moments of ‘rapturous’ cinema
Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry has moments of rapturous, almost pure cinema, where the visuals alone sustain it.
However, that quality and the film’s often clever script are undone by the ending, which plays out as an attempt at innovation when in reality it was both decades old and an inappropriate choice.
Taste of Cherry views human beings through both telescopic and microscopic lenses. Which one is the most revealing is debatable. That such an approach is substantially hindered by the final scene is a shame, even if it’s one as human as the dilemma it traces.
Taste of Cherry / Ta’m e guilass (1997)
Direction & Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami.
Cast: Homayon Ershadi. Safar Ali Moradi. Abdolrahman Bagheri. Mir Hossein Noori. Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari.
“Taste of Cherry: Ending Nearly Ruins Kiarostami’s Suicide Drama” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Taste of Cherry: Ending Nearly Ruins Kiarostami’s Suicide Drama” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Taste of Cherry (1997) Movie Review” endnotes
Safar Ali Moradi and Homayoun Ershadi Taste of Cherry movie images: Abbas Kiarostami Productions | CiBy 2000.
“Taste of Cherry: Ending Nearly Ruins Kiarostami’s Suicide Drama” last updated in September 2021.