You won’t find any bone-crunching battle sequences or computer-generated mock-ups of the Roman Coliseum in the works of Abbas Kiarostami.
But it does seem appropriate somehow that a retrospective dedicated to the Iranian film-maker’s works should commence while Beirut is in the grip of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It is not that one director is any better than the other. They are simply doing different things.
The Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami features six films from the 1980s and 1990s and the 1974 classic, The Traveller. A misunderstanding with the distributor resulted in two of the movies First Graders (1984) and Homework (1989) arriving in 16mm stock, making it impossible to show them at Sodeco Cinema Six. The organizers hope to screen these two films at Theatre Monnot instead.
The remaining four movies Where Is My Friend’s House (1987), And Life Goes On (1992), Close-Up (1990), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) provide film buffs with a chance to look at Kiarostami’s work in the years immediately before he received international acclaim for Through the Olive Trees and The Taste of Cherry.
Together, the retrospective’s seven films offer a unique opportunity to get a sense of the director’s preoccupations and trace his evolution as an artist.
Kiarostami’s films can be immensely satisfying, but difficult. Here the contrast with Ridley Scott’s epic is apt. Gladiator’s in-joke is that it engages or alienates the audience in exactly the same way that the gladiator matches did the Roman masses. It is engrossing, diverting and, by its very definition, not the least challenging.
Kiarostami confronts his audience. His camera will focus, uninterrupted, at clouds passing over the moon, or the barren beauty of the Iranian countryside for long enough to test the patience of even the most sympathetic viewer. Yet it is common to emerge from one of his films feeling like you need to watch it again. Countless people have fallen asleep in a Kiarostami movie, only to pay money to watch it again.
Close-Up is a case in point. It is a faux documentary about a man who is tried for posing as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The film stitches together “recreations” of key scenes in the fraud with interviews and, of course, extended monologues.
The trial scenes feature (apparently) interminable shots of the accused man’s courtroom monologues. He tries to express his motivations interspersed with long silences while, in the background, the officer guarding him struggles to stay awake. Kiarostami knows it is difficult to pay attention, but there are rewards if you do.
Of the films at this retrospective, Close-Up focuses most self-consciously on the “post-modern” issues of appearance and reality, truth and deception, talent and destiny.
The other films betray the director’s interest in children and the conflict between innocence and ethics on one hand and the moral ambiguity of adult authority over youngsters on the other.
These films can all be read as morality tales, but to do so would be a disservice. The moral issues are never reduced to simple right and wrong, and his presentation of “morality” has become ever more complex as he has grown.
So in The Traveller we are introduced to a football-obsessed Qasim, who will do anything to raise the money to get himself to Tehran to watch the national team play.
In Where Is My Friend’s House, Ahmad watches his maniacal teacher threaten to expel his friend because he has not done his homework in the proper notebook. After school Ahmad finds his friend’s notebook in his bag. He wants to return the book but his friend lives in the next village and his mother does not believe him when he tells her what he wants to do. To do the right thing, Ahmad has to disobey his parents and the adventure begins.
The retrospective also includes Kiarostami’s most recent and poetic film, The Wind Will Carry Us. Like 1997’s The Taste of Cherry, it is a contemplation of mortality. But where Cherry was bereft of children, kids return to The Wind’s plot.
Kiarostami’s central character, Behzad, is a film-maker of sorts who arrives in the Kurdish village of Siah Dareh to record an obscure funerary ritual. But he and his crew are very cagey about what they are actually up to and at various points he admits to be hunting for treasure and being a telecommunications engineer the word for which in Iran is mukhabarat.
His only contact in town is the nephew of a friend in Tehran, a little boy named Farzad. When he is not rushing off to one of his never-ending exams he keeps Behzad posted on the illness of the woman they are waiting to die. The moral ambiguity of the plot is buoyed by Behzad and Farzad’s interactions.
By reintroducing the youngster into the story, The Wind Will Carry Us is made less somber than The Taste of Cherry. But the humor does nothing to dilute the power of the work.