Taste of Cherry

Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema has long been a ‘humanitarian’ one, but not in the often condescending, conventional sense of the word. His cinema carries the utmost respect for an audience as a collection of thinking, intellectualizing individuals: never does he resort to devices intended to blatantly arouse the audience’s emotions, edit didactically to make a political point, or instruct via an obvious narrative structure. His sparse narrative economy comprised of spaces and ellipsis thread together episodes and present experiences that require the audience to make a leap of imagination or understanding. In Taste of Cherry (1997), for instance, a sweeping volume of sensory perception triggered by multiple sounds – giggling children playing in a valley, the drone of distant construction vehicles, or strange animal squeals hidden behind a hill – suggests worlds beyond the frame. Most pervasive in the film is the use of car horns (and a heightened awareness of the Doppler effect for when they whoosh past), sounds that broaden the main character, Badii’s (played by Homayon Ershadi) world – and our own – beyond the interior frame of his car window. From beginning to end, Badii occupies various forms of an ‘imaginative box,’ a ‘structure’ that encourages adaptation, a moving beyond, a projection. As an audience member, the varying degrees to which we’re aligned with Badii’s vision or distanced from it (as in the shot of Badii in his apartment at night through the blinds), maps one of the film’s rhythms that we occasionally coincide with or drift away from.

The notion of conceptually moving beyond – in both a practical and spiritual sense – is a key theme of Kiarostami’s cinema. For instance, rather than haggle with Iran’s notorious censorship office, which would create a film of compromise or a film-by-committee, Kiarostami accepts and uses their general guidelines based on precedents. He works within this framework and creates films that imply meaning beyond it. Many global artists use ‘form’ as their basis – poets penning in meter, or haiku masters – however, projecting something (a feeling, a person, an experience) when it can’t be recorded visually is a distinctly Iranian phenomenon. Think of the architecture of Tehran, for example, that we see in Close-Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry – comprised mainly of large walls facing the streets at a property’s edge, thereby concealing, protecting, and suggesting a courtyard and a bustling family life beyond. The activity is within, beyond sight, and therefore sound becomes crucial. In The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), over ten characters in the film are heard but never seen, or discussed but neither heard nor seen.

In Kiarostami’s written statement, “An Unfinished Cinema,” distributed at the Centenary of Cinema (Paris 1995), he wrote, “In the darkened theater, we give everyone the chance to dream and to express his [sic] dream freely. If art succeeds in changing things and proposing new ideas, it can only do so via the free creativity of the people we are addressing, each individual member of the audience.” (1) The controversial (to critics) ending of Taste of Cherry is not some separate addition to the film proper or a sort of filmic afterthought but rather an organic outgrowth of an experiential progression throughout the film, the continuation of a spiritual meditation on the relationship between the audience and the screen, between seeing and imagining, between watching a movie and living reality.

At the end of Taste of Cherry, Badii, apparently having taken his sleeping pills, finally lies down in his ditch – he has bodily entered the earth, the imaginative box. On cue, the land darkens around him, suggesting a situation similar to the darkening in a theater environment, as if Badii has settled into some interior meditation. Various levels of vision are filtered out – our access to Badii fades, and his visual access to his world fades when he closes his eyes. Both actor and viewer are left with black. Though literally Badii lies down to sleep, and we may speculate whether as a character he lives or dies, it’s also as if he’s relinquishing his role as actor, as if he’s dissolving away into the film. Perhaps he also becomes a model for an audience member in Kiarostami’s ideal audience, closing one’s eyes to express one’s dreams, letting oneself go, leaving the specifics of the film (such as plot and concrete logic). A theme of Kiarostami’s work is that we don’t need to see in order to know: by purposely shutting his eyes while in his box, in the dark, Badii could be dreaming the entire ending of the film to follow, or else creating it along with us.

In fact, when we take the subsequent images that complete Taste of Cherry in the broader context, it is possible to conclude that Kiarostami may be suggesting that the moment we slink into the darkness of a theater, ready to receive images or help create them, becomes a kind of death, which is to say a transition, a closing of our eyes on one world and an opening of them onto another. Part of the film’s reason for ending on a ‘rebirth’ is the closing of the distance between these seemingly disparate worlds, encouraging us to know them both, imaginatively and experientially. So, by blurring the lines between beginning and ending, actor and non-actor, life and death, all worlds slip into one.

If these realms all become one, why should there be an answer, a conclusion, an end of the experience? Why should there, then, even be an image? A black screen overtakes Badii, and we are left with nothing but sound – rain that crescendos and fades. The film leaves the viewer with this black image for an extended duration, effectively leaving one with oneself, aware of oneself, watching nothing, expecting all, projecting all. The absence of an image creates an empty darkened theater, which releases us. It’s a pause, a break for contemplation. The distance between images, like the space between lines in a poem, requires the viewer to make a connection, to be involved, to make an imaginative leap.

The continuity of the previous image into the black (heightened by the use of a fade rather than a cut, and the fact that we’re never sure if the film might reveal Badii one more time, so we might project or expect his image imaginatively) implies the physical sameness of the two images and suggests that whether we see Badii’s face or a black screen we are seeing the same thing. Our imaginative creation invests the screen with life for, technically and physically, Badii’s face is a ghost image, an intangible non-life, as is the black. Taste of Cherry does not play games at this juncture in the journey, but thrusts the responsibility for the film back onto the viewer. It’s an anti-escapist strategy that formally encourages the imaginative creation of meaning.

The footsteps and cadenced voices of marching soldiers fade in over the black screen as the sound of the rain fades out. These military rhythms evoke Badii’s earlier conversation with the young Kurdish soldier about counting in the military. They also serve as a rhythmic introduction to the new section: what we see could be viewed as some sort of cinematic afterlife, a joke, a second or alternate ending, Badii’s transition from actor to viewer, or any permutation of multiple ways to experience this continuity.

As the soldiers continue to chant in rhythm, the image fades in from black to a completely new visual world, suggested immediately by a new filming technique diametrically opposed to that used in the world prior to Badii closing his eyes: the grainy, green-tinted image is now shot on video, and is handheld. We’re at the same camera position from which we saw Badii duck underneath and out of the frame before entering his hole, only now we’re on the other side of the black. Crucially, at this point a viewer does not know what to think. The bright daylight, combined with the return to the same camera position, may suggest merely the next morning, implying a continuity with the previous story, an ‘answer’ to the question of Badii’s death. However, the lush green hillside seems incongruous: we gradually realize, if not in this shot, then sometime in the next few, that the film is now in a different season, either spring or summer. (2) The chanting soldiers now enter the frame in extreme long shot at the bottom left. A distant motor quietly rolls off and on, giving the aural landscape more texture, and foreshadowing the low whine of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet soon to come. The soldiers march back up the winding path that the taxi had taken the night Badii closed his eyes.

After a cut, the video camera pans right and a cameraman appears in long shot holding a film camera. He walks down a thin hilltop towards another crewmember setting up a tripod. They both turn their backs to the camera, and therefore to the audience, standing high above the landscape outside of Tehran. Suddenly, Badii casually enters the frame in mid-shot from the hill in front of these men, wearing different clothes than he had on when he settled into the ditch, and as the two set up a shot, the camera pans back left with Badii as he reaches into his left breast pocket, lights a cigarette, takes a puff of it, and then gives it over to Kiarostami himself, who is hanging out with two other crewmen. (3) Both Kiarostami and Badii, as if accidentally, then turn their backs to the camera and seemingly engage in casual conversation.

In this ending, it’s as if these crewmen, the director and the actors alike, by all facing away from the audience and toward the world in the depths of the screen image, are now also becoming viewers, that they are contemplating the creation themselves, trying to figure out what they face – the earth, not the film. They are amidst the image, yet look at it, sharing our role in creating what we see. We begin to wonder what life/death distinctions matter. Since all the worlds become one (or at least overlap), and we see a man rising, his title – whether it be actor, character, human – doesn’t matter. He’s walking.

The film then cuts to the soundman (wearing headphones and holding a mic), who humorously ducks down a notch that presumably would eliminate wind noise, and glances back at the camera, reversing the denial of it from the shots before. Kiarostami’s structures always build one block on top of another, and each new image adds new levels of understanding. There’s no set meaning that we can guess at and then look for associated clues or inferences. Instead of reinforcing previous clues, Kiarostami presents events that shift meanings and experience – that may deepen, contradict, or even confuse what has gone on before.

A voice comes from beyond the frame, perhaps humorously suggesting the voice of God, and says, “Can you hear me?” through a walkie-talkie. Since we can’t see the source, this initial phrase also seems to be directed at us. The voice, that we’ll soon discover is Kiarostami’s, causes the drilling soldiers to stop and whistles to blow off-kilter, effectively putting an end to their rhythm. The sergeant comes back with “Bâlé?” (“Yes?”). The voice continues, “Tell your men to stay near the tree to rest,” and the low brass whines of the music soundtrack begin beneath his words – this low whine feels like a deflation, or the revelation of some grand joke. Though certainly it is to some extent, this feeling will be directly countered soon.

The function of the tree changes in the video sequence: it means something different for these soldiers than it does for Badii. Where for him it meant the marker of a possible final resting place, for them it provides shade and an opportunity to rest, a preserver of life rather than a marker of its loss. The camera widens its frame to reveal both the tree and the soldiers on the far side of a valley, and now includes Kiarostami and his crew, on the near side, still with their backs to the camera, as he states, “The shoot is over.”

The next and last sentence, translated as “We’re here for a sound take,” bridges the cut between shots, and leads us to our first view of the front of the crew, in medium shot, looking across the valley. The first time we, as the audience, see the front of Kiarostami, he counters our unconscious desire for some sort of answer via the revelation of his persona by presenting us with four separate ways of looking, really four separate ways of filtering vision, in this one frame. First we see the film camera, then Kiarostami in sunglasses (with a hat and the walkie-talkie), then a crew member behind him shading his naked eyes from the sun as he looks across this suggestive valley, and finally, a still photographer with his head and camera in the bottom right of the frame. This image of looking is complicated further by the fact that we’re viewing it through a video camera.

As the introductory whine of the music begins to crescendo and the first notes of the melody are imminent, Kiarostami finishes the line “We’re here for a sound take,” and gets the off-screen comeback, “Bâlé, bâlé.” As if to further undermine the authority the audience imposes upon a director, he looks into the distance uncertainly, looks back at his cameraman, who is suddenly visible, as if to check with him to see if they got the shot, looks back into the distance again in a comedic symphony of pauses, and then the cut comes, synchronized with the beginning of the song, with the first cymbal crash of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five version of “St. James Infirmary.”

The choice of “St. James Infirmary,” once it kicks in, creates a powerful feeling of shift, a strange, almost inexplicable thrill – yet also a relief, and also a surprise. The choice of using specifically Western music at the end of the film, when there has been no non-diegetic music at all for the entire course of the previous ninety-three minutes, strikes the viewer noticeably: Kiarostami makes this choice impossible to ignore, impossible not to think about. Perhaps it is a plea for a universal, culturally nonspecific reading. Chosen, perhaps, for its plaintive passion, the song is clearly not from Iranian culture, maybe suggesting that the experience of the film should be an open one: that attaching it to one culture and associating it with nationalities and political systems limits the imaginative potential of meaning. Using handheld video for the ending functions similarly in that the switch in visual style strikes the viewer, though perhaps more subtly than the music does. If we consider the subject matter of the film, suicide, perhaps we are encouraged to move past the Iranian-only interpretation of suicide running contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an, and into the fact that all societies and religions hold varying negative opinions and judgments on suicide.

Just as the visual shift to video encourages a new perspective on the preceding images, so too does Armstrong’s trumpet call attention to the sound-making process. Indeed, Kiarostami’s film, with such a calm camera and a steady progression, gains most of its atmosphere through the imagined world beyond the frame. (4) Kiarostami’s sounds, especially the extra-heightened atmospheric ambience, likewise suggest the inexpressible, creating a multi-layered world reflective of Badii’s interior condition, as well as evoking imagined volume beyond the screen, to get us to create the world in our head. If viewers tend to get bored with minutes-long shots of Badii’s contemplative face as he drives through the city, they should open their ears. But Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” is not subtle, is not apparently diegetic, and it shifts the entire function of sound in the film.

Though Taste of Cherry employs an instrumental version, if part of the viewer’s experience is to know the lyrics and the tradition of the song, yet another plane of information evolves, creating a new possibility of interpretation.

I went down to St. James Infirmary and saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table – so sweet, so cold, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her, wherever she may be:
She can look the whole wide world over and never find a sweet man like me.
Now, when I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches, box-back coat and a stetson hat
Put a $20 gold piece on my watch chain, so the boys’ll know I died standing pat.” (5)

In the concept of bringing your own experience to the film combined with, more importantly, the essence of being without being seen (knowing that something’s present without definitive sensory evidence of that presence), this song ends up suggesting more than we even see or hear. Film is not enough to create, or even suggest, meaning in this case. The song’s lyrics, illustrative of a man facing his own death by seeing another’s and then imagining his own, seems particularly applicable to the ending of Taste of Cherry, for it perfectly parallels one level of the audience-screen relationship.

A Chicago jazz standard that originated from New Orleans, the song expresses the intense sorrow for the passing of someone close. But in the funereal tradition of New Orleans jazz, the song only begins plaintively and soulfully, and then evolves into joy as relatives and friends shift from mourning to a celebration of the deceased’s life with a party. Initially, Armstrong’s version suggests the same in the film: sadness and mourning. But then as we see the soldiers frolic and rest, we feel some sort of life connected to and coming from death, a cycle of joy emerging out of sorrow. Perhaps we even think about Badii’s contemplation of suicide – by having and considering the option of suicide (and the film is an exercise in the weighing up of the issue), Badii becomes aware of the choice of life. And by using a 1920s performance in a 1990s film, Kiarostami also asserts the timelessness of emotion, and that experiences are associational, experiential, creative, and imaginative.

Taste of Cherry

Badii’s death or non-death as fact becomes irrelevant. Rather, points are offered for contemplation: should Badii die, what happens to him? As we’ll see, Taste of Cherry refers to concepts of the dead in both Zoroastrianism and Islam. The Zoroastrians were the primary religious influence on Iran until the 10th century, and their lasting presence (20% of the 150,000 Zoroastrians remaining in the world today live in Iran), important as the initial and formative presence, is specifically suggested in Taste of Cherry. Badii has a prolonged interaction with an Afghan security guard at the quarry. The guard’s hometown is Mazar-é Sharif, in present-day Afghanistan, a town that, as they discuss, is the mistaken burial ground of Imam Ali, and therefore a place of pilgrimage. Discussing the Imam, though, circularly gets at something else: it is also the assumed birth town of Zoroaster, born there in 550 BC. The Zoroastrian practices of death ritual are suggested by the fact that the guard keeps watch over a quarry whose elements create cement, the material used by modern-day Zoroastrians to encase their buried dead, thereby preserving their religious beliefs while adapting them into a modern era – traditionally, they had exposed their dead on ‘towers of silence’ – cement structures that saved the earth and the atmosphere from pollution. (6) The concept of suicide in relation to the Qur’an as well as the nature of death are topics explicitly discussed when Badii drives around with the Afghani seminarian.

Additionally, the final sequence suggests Badii’s possible martyrdom. During the sequence in which Badii closes his eyes and the screen turns black, we may recall the only other moment in the film when we saw a black screen – just before the film’s first image, where “In the Name of God” is written over the black. The concepts of God and death, and the ability of the cinematic process to interrupt life, transform it, and restart it all play into this final sequence. The Qur’an says that those who die for God are martyrs and that martyrs never die; they live forever. (7) Technically, as Kiarostami reveals Badii to us, he never dies. We never see him die. Does his image on film keep him remembered forever? To an Islamic martyr, the essence of living forever means that a new life starts for him in heaven.

When Armstrong’s trumpet rises on the soundtrack, the military march ceases, and the soldiers relax. Perhaps here the film refers to the Iranian procession of mourners at Behesht-é Zahra, the vast cemetery in Tehran that is the final resting place of the political dead – those who were involved in the war with Iraq, and the many revolutions. (8) In this case, the choice of a brass instrument, usually associated with Western nations, would not seem so strange, for the roads of Behesht-é Zahra were filled with mourners in procession, who marched with musicians playing saxophones and trumpets. The whole group accompanied the casket of the more celebrated martyrs.

Is Badii a martyr? Perhaps his modern journey, of which his Range Rover becomes emblematic, represents an allegorical wrestling with the presence of Islam. Perhaps – further than just contending issues of modernity – Badii’s western-produced Range Rover is an index of the concept of Occidentosis that has been theorized to entrap and depress the people of Iran, based on the almost unavoidable saturation of western influence. (9) Perhaps Badii puts himself through a modern version of self-flagellation. (10) But is Badii a religious, political, or cinematic martyr, offering himself up for the benefit of audiences present and future? In the tradition of Iranian dead, the images of the martyred live on past their physical existence. Each grave at Behesht-é Zahra, for instance, bears a picture of the deceased looking back from the grave, embalming time, as André Bazin would have it. (11) In addition, the photos of the martyrs are often made into laminated trading cards for sale to children and tourists, and the most famous martyrs have been known to be memorialized in commemorative stamps. Therefore, the martyr moves from a physical figure to an icon, from a real existence to something imagined.

At the end of Taste of Cherry, Badii physically puts himself into the land of Iran, its soil. The bodies of martyrs were said to irrigate the revolutionary seed and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions, one of the words the soldiers chant is “Revolution.” (12) If an Islamic martyr lives forever, Badii’s cinematic existence comes into play. Like an Islamic martyr, in the form and body of the film, he does not technically die and his existence transforms from a physical embodiment to some sort of image intended for interpretation. When an audience confronts his image outside the ditch in a new visual environment, the entire perspective of his existence must be retroactively reinterpreted. The film elevates him into a new figure, a lesson and not a person, while at the same time revaluing him from the status of actor back to the status of regular person.

In Iranian folklore, Israfíl, the angel of resurrection, blows a trumpet.

It is said that he has a trumpet which reaches from the East to the West or from earth to heaven, and he is spoken of as the Master of the Trumpet. Since the day God created him he has stood with his eyes fixed on God and the trumpet to his lips, awaiting the command to blow. When the command comes and he blows, then all the living will die, but since it will also be the Resurrection Day, all the dead will rise and present themselves for the accounting. (13)

Kiarostami suggests something resembling a rebirth through the ending of Taste of Cherry. The visceral experience of the trumpet resounds through the rest of the sequence, which shows the soldiers, who have stopped drilling, cavorting in the springtime hillside. Is the camera analyzing them, taking account of them as it drifts by? When the trumpet blows, the film is nearly over – its two-hour slumber complete, now the audience has to rise and account for itself.

Endnotes

  1. Abbas Kiarostami, “An Unfinished Cinema,” pamphlet written for the Centenary of Cinema, December 1995, and distributed in Odeon Theater, Paris. Press pack, The Wind Will Carry Us.
  2. An Iranian viewer may be reminded of No Ruz, the New Year, which arrives around the spring equinox in March. Kiarostami uses this holiday as a structuring end in his “script” for The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). Elaine Sciolino, Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of the Iran (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 66.
  3. If a viewer doesn’t know what Kiarostami looks like, the context suggests that this is a director figure.
  4. Perhaps this compares to De Sica’s use of sounds in Umberto D, which add new dimensions rather than just illustrate the plot – for example, by associating opera music with Umberto’s landlady, De Sica contrasts Umberto’s basic problems and inexpressible emotions of suffering with the overblown, melodramatic expressions of suffering used not for the experience of the emotion, of the singing, but merely as a confirmation of her own social status. Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1996), 66.
  5. Traditional, Public Domain. Cab Calloway sings another verse: “Folks, now that you’ve heard my story – say, boy, hand me another shot of that booze – if anyone should ask you, tell ’em I’ve got those St. James Infirmary blues.”
  6. Peter Greenway, Iran (Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 1998), 214. Though several other places in Iran claim their town as his birthplace, Mazar-é Sharif is generally agreed to be the correct location.
  7. Sciolino, 173.
  8. Ibid., 173.
  9. Jalal Al-I Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague From the West, trans. R. Campbell, ed. Hamid Algar (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1984), 27.
  10. Sciolino, 173-4.

    Every year for centuries on the anniversary of Hosein’s death [Hosein is the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad], men and boys … have flagellated themselves with chains and beat themselves over the head. … For Shiites, the battle of Karbala [a legendary battle where Hosein successfully defended his family and followers] is the equivalent of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, the self-flagellation reminiscent of the medieval practice of self-mutilation, carrying of the Cross, and physical deprivation that survives in parts of the Christian world today.

  11. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema? Volume I, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1967), 14.
  12. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Fill in the Blanks,” Chicago Reader, May 1998, accessed at http://www.chireader.com.
  13. Bess Allen Donaldson, The Wild Rue: A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran (New York: Arno Press, 1973), reprint of 1938 edition published by Luzac (London), 75-76.

About The Author

Michael Price is a writer living in Seoul, South Korea.