Some things about Iranian movies

In the last several months we’ve seen a number of Iranian movies on DVD. We both feel intense admiration for the director Abbas Kiarostami. Which was tested yesterday, when we saw ‘A Taste of Cherry,’ which largely consists of a man who wants to commit suicide driving back and forth, back and forth, on an ugly road being built on the side of a hill – bare brown dirt, the sound of earth-moving equipment, an occasional small tree. (But why is there New Orleans jazz at the end? I assume the tacked-on, artificial ending is there because Iranian censors don’t allow one to show suicide, which is a sin in Islam. But why that music, of all jarring things? It made me jump up from where I was sitting, in annoyance – you can do that when you watch movies at home – and pace around the room.)

(Note: Language Hat provided a link to an article which attempts to explain things: Imagining Life: The Ending of Taste of Cherry. I have to say that it didn't convince me, but it has interesting things to say about Kiarostami's way of film-making.)

I realised that in Kiarostami’s movies, a great deal of time is spent in going back and forth, back and forth: children run back and forth between home and the places they have to go to in ‘Where is Friend’s House’ and ‘The White Balloon’ (directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Kiarostami). In ‘Wind Will Carry Us,’ a man is staying in a remote village in order to make a film. Whenever his cell phone rings he must jump into his car and drive to a graveyard on a hilltop, the only place where he can hear the call.

One thing that this does, of course, is slow things down. People often go places in American films too, but it’s all elided, unless it’s a car chase. (You’d think that Americans were like dogs, chasing cars as part of their daily routine.) (The Vernacular Body was talking about slowness recently, as it happens. He writes:
When was the last time you saw a cinematic shot in a movie that was held for five minutes? Let's not even talk of television: I doubt they hold their shots for more than thirty seconds at a time. Too much money involved for all that lyrical shit. Besides, people get uncomfortable with silence, and with looking at the same thing for "too long". So, faster, faster, edit, jump, cut, channel surf, fade out.

He talks about the same thing in other ways that we live – quick, on to the next thing! It seems to apply more and more to me, certainly.)

Those very ordinary, repeated journeys in Kiarostami’s movies give me time to reflect on what’s happening; on the structure the film-maker imposes; on the country – Iran -- through which the characters are travelling. We are uncomfortable with slow things because we have to step back and consider them?

Another thing about the Iranian movies that I’ve seen is that there is no background music; then, just at the end, there may be a plaintive folk-tune, like a flower springing out of parched earth; which immediately brings tears to my eyes. Cassandra wrote something about this once: that Iranian movies are so austere, and then suddenly there will be a flash of colour – a flowering plant potted on a windowsill, or a blue door. Those small moments of relative lushness are magnified, become powerful and touching, in their drab context.

Another thing about Iranian movies is a purely private pleasure. As I listen to the flow of Farsi behind the subtitles, I hear many words which have entered the north Indian languages: mushqil (difficult), khud-kushi (suicide), zindagi (life), and so on. Each time one of these words jumps out at me, I repeat it softly to myself: mushqil… khud-kushi… zindagi…

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