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On the passing of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami

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“Poetry always runs away from you—it’s very difficult to grasp it, and every time you read it, depending on your conditions, you will have a different grasp of it.”

It’s surely no coincidence that many of the filmmakers most beloved to me are the same ones I find hardest to write about. I’m thinking of Claire Denis, Andrei Tarkovsky, Krzysztof Kieślowski, filmmakers whose work I find inexhaustible, films that, with their mysteries, their lack of overt messages or one-to-one metaphors, always run away from you. I’m thinking above all about Abbas Kiarostami, the great Iranian innovator and author of the above quotation. Kiarostami’s cinema was poetic. By poetic I don’t only mean lyrical. Rather, his films are endlessly suggestive, unfolding in different directions, opening up different points of view, engaging with the world in different ways, every time you revisit them. I’m writing about Kiarostami because he died Monday at age 76. Some years ago the critic Philip Lopate wrote that “we are living in the age of Kiarostami.” Which I suppose means that we’ve now reached the end of an age. It feels that way.

Maybe you haven’t seen Kiarostami’s work. Maybe you haven’t even heard of Kiarostami. It’s alright; his films weren’t exactly drawing crowds at the multiplex. I only came to know his films thanks to this job. When I started at Vue I began covering everything programmed at Metro Cinema. This was where I first learned of the quietly radical work being done in Iran, which has been called paradocumentary or metafictional, though its techniques have since been disseminated, taken up by filmmakers the world over (including Roberto Minervini, the subject of last week’s column).

Kiarostami’s most famous film, Close-up (1990), concerns a man who cons a Tehran family into believing that he’s the esteemed director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami read about the impostor’s arrest and immediately set about making a film with the impostor, with the family, and, in the film’s most inspired turn, Makhmalbaf himself. Close-up is not documentary of fiction. It digresses, hesitates, observes behaviour, waits, makes jokes, invents and winds up offering a study in class, aspiration, forgiveness and self-actualization like nothing else in cinema.

In A Taste of Cherry (1997), which won the Palme d’Or, a man drives through the countryside looking for someone to assist him in the orchestration of his suicide. The ambiguity of the nature of his search lingers long—at one point you’re certain he’s cruising for sex. By the film’s end you still don’t know his motives, which have become secondary to the shifts in his perspective that transpire as he meets various candidates. It’s what happens along the way that matters in Kiarostami—what’s found. There’s no better evidence of this than in his Koker trilogy, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). The first film stars a young boy, an non-actor, playing himself, who travels to a neighbouring village to return a classmate’s notebook; the second was made after an earthquake and is about a man, Kiarostami’s stand-in, returning to Koker to see if the boy is still alive; the third recreates a short scene about frustrated desire from the second film, ushering a formerly peripheral event to the foreground.

Kiarostami was the epitome of the auteur, yet he often strove to eliminate the role of director. In Ten (2002), shot entirely from the dashboard of a moving car, Kiarostami wasn’t even in the car. He sometimes referred to the director as being akin to a soccer coach, someone who selects and inspires the team, strategizes the plays, and then sits at the sidelines while the game unfolds.

I consider myself lucky to have seen Kiarostami speak about his career this past December. He was generous, funny, enigmatic, intelligent. Afterwards I went out with several Iranian friends, all of whom knew Kiarostami to greater or lesser degrees. They told me a story about how they were all arrested one night in Tehran, and the next morning, to their great surprise, Kiarostami came to the station and, somehow, talked the police into setting them free.

I consider myself even luckier to have had the opportunity to introduce a friend—not a cinephile—to Kiarostami’s films during a recent retrospective. Our conversations about the films went on for hours, and I was pleased to discover than she was not only fascinated but also profoundly moved by these films. Much of Kiarostami’s early work is tough to track down, but Close-up, A Taste of Cherry, Ten and Certified Copy are all easy to find. Any one of them offers a solid place to start delving into one of the most original and transformative bodies of work in the story of film. V

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