Taste, too, of the esoteric cinema of Iran's Abbas Kiarostami. The concept of the film is simplicity itself. Most of its action takes place in and around a two-door hatchback, which the stone-faced middle-aged protagonist drives round and round the twisting unpaved roads of a barren, brown, and ugly construction zone on the outskirts of Tehran in the declining afternoon light. The effect is roughly of a revolving cyclorama, a Lazy Susan of landscape, now piled up flat against the plane of the screen, now scooped out into deep cavities, a gentle undulation of the near and the far. In turn, the driver propositions an able-bodied laborer, a ragpicker, a hitchhiking Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarian, and lastly an old man delivering a clutch of quails to the taxidermy department at the Natural History Museum (there are notably no female characters), dangling in front of each of them the offer of an unspecified "well-paid job." The misunderstanding reactions of the first two are easy to understand. Not until the third man, a third of the way through the movie, does the solicitation proceed to the point of spelling out the exact nature of the job. It demands more than just something "unnatural." It demands something ungodly. He wants someone to shovel dirt into a pre-dug grave after he has killed himself. (His reason for wanting to kill himself never does get spelled out.) The director's modus operandi might bring to mind something the always quotable Godard once said about the necessity of the documentary filmmaker to move toward fiction and the equivalent necessity of the fictional filmmaker to move toward documentary. While Kiarostami does not venture as far from his fictional starting point as Godard himself often does -- and as often into areas of academic aridness -- he travels well past the midpoint. An obvious first step is the dependence on natural locales, photographed without prettification, camera gimmicks, distorting lenses, filters, special effects, so that the resulting film can't help but become an unretouched document of its own origins. (And an eye-opening, demystifying document it is.) Then there is the abundance of ambient noise -- birds, the wind, passing vehicles, one of which might momentarily drown out the dialogue -- and there is no background music to extract or extort a response from the audience. Nor is there any outsized emoting from the players, and there is a thorough integration of the nonprofessional actor (who might sneak a glance at the camera) with the skilled professional. Above all, in the present work at any rate, there is the observance of "real time," meaning that the duration of the movie corresponds exactly to the duration of its events, except for some small skips toward the end, if only so as not to be fanatical about it. What emerges is a work of tremendous formal unity, purity, strength. The viewer might not always be willing to stay stride for stride with the movie. The small talk may sometimes be of dwindling interest, and the unbroken line of action may sometimes encourage attention to wander. But then again, those times may be surprisingly few and brief. The carrying-out of the cinematic plan, quite apart from the suicide plan, generates its own sort of tension and suspense. (1997) — Duncan Shepherd
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