Thursday, September 5, 2013

Iran Amok

Film: Ta’m e Guilass (Taste of Cherry); Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ (Cherry) and video from The Magic Flashdrive (Balloon) on laptop.

There’s a certain pleasure to be found in a number of films from other cultures. For me, one of those pleasures is noting the cultural differences and the particular cultural similarities. Based on the current world situation, it would seem more and more that there are no similarities between my own default Western culture and that of a country like Iran. And yet along comes a film like Ta’m e Guilass (Taste of Cherry) to prove that idea wrong. While the culture here is very different from mine, the moral issue that sits at the heart of this film is one that could easily be played out anywhere.

Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) is looking for someone to do a job for him. It’s not indicated at first what Badii is looking for, and there seems to be a vibe of something unsavory in what people think he wants. There is a distinctive vibe of Badii looking for sex, or at least that is the vibe picked up by the men he questions to help him. He eventually gets a young Kurdish soldier (Safar Ali Moradi) to get into his car and take a drive with him. The two speak for a bit, and it’s evident that the soldier is uncomfortable and wants to get back to his base. Eventually, Badii stops the car and gets out and tells the soldier what is on his mind.

Badii wants the soldier to perform a very simple favor for him, and it’s something he’s willing to pay a great deal of money to have happen. Essentially, he wants the soldier to take his car and come back to the same spot the next morning at 6:00. Once he arrives, he is to call for Mr. Badii. If he gets a response, he is to help him out of a hole in the ground. If there is no response, the soldier is to throw dirt into the hole. This seems odd at first until it becomes evident that Badii is contemplating suicide. If he survives the night, he has decided to live. If he does kill himself, he wants to soldier to bury him. Once the soldier gets the idea, he decides that this is not what he signed up for and runs off back to his military base.

Badii’s quest for someone to bury him takes him next to an older Afghani man who works by himself at a massive construction site. This leads him to a second Afghani, a seminarian visiting the area. The seminarian (Mir Hossein Noori) becomes Badii’s next choice to see to his remains after his death, but he refuses as well, on the grounds that suicide is against his beliefs and he will not support it.

He finally finds someone to help him, an older man originally from Turkey who works as a taxidermist. This man (Abdolrahman Bagheri) agrees to help because he needs the money that Badii is offering for the service. However, he attempts to talk Badii out of the act by telling him that the reasons for him wanting to kill himself are probably transitory and that a change in perspective is all he really needs. As the old man talks, it becomes more and more evident that he wishes to help Badii because he too once contemplated suicide. He tells the story of heading off to hang himself in a mulberry orchard, but decides against killing himself when he eats some of the mulberries and realizes that the world might be a better place than he thought (and it made me wonder why this film isn’t called Taste of Mulberry, although the old man does reference cherries during his monologue about the value of life).

There are some truly beautiful shots in Ta’m e Guilass, and it’s a good thing there are, because this is a slow film. But there is wonderful subtlety in what Kiarostami shows us. Badii doesn’t merely want to kill himself; he wants to disappear completely. We never learn the reason for his wanting to kill himself, but someone who wished to kill himself could do so in any number of ways. It’s the fact that he wants someone to bury him that makes this so interesting. Badii wants to die for whatever reason he won’t tell us, but he also wants to disappear completely. We don’t know the reason for this, either—it might be to avoid being a burden to anyone or simply because his secret shame is too great.

His desire to be buried, to be removed from the world completely, is matched in much of the imagery we are given by Kiarostami. As Badii wanders around the earthworks in which he looks for someone to help him, we see frequent shots of his shadow being covered by falling earth. There are times when Badii stands still as this happens, allowing the earth to cover his shadow. At other times, he steps to the side, preventing the falling dirt from crossing his path.

The biggest question here is not why Badii wants to disappear, but whether or not he actually goes through with killing himself. It’s left unresolved. We see him sit on a park bench watching the sun go down. We see him go to the grave he has dug that night. Does he take the sleeping pills he has saved for this moment? Does he simply go to sleep and wait for the old taxidermist to come find him? We never really find out because the film ends in typical Kiarostami style, with behind-the scenes shots of the film being made, a reminder that for all of the moral questions being asked and our investment in what happens to Mr. Badii, this is still just a film.

My biggest complaint here is the speed. Ta’m e Guilass is dead slow. I have tried to watch it on several occasions, and last night, I fell asleep hard 20 minutes in. Not every film needs to be a set of crazy explosions and car chases and gun battles, of course, but in the case of Ta’m e Guilass, there are long stretches of landscape shots. While beautiful in their own way, it takes the pace of the film past merely contemplative and into inertia.

But it’s worth it for the moral question it asks, a question as applicable to 2013 American society as it was in 1997 Iran. For that reason, it’s more interesting than its dead slow pace.

Kiarostami had a hand in Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon) as well, although he didn’t direct it. He wrote the script and gave it to his protégé, Jafar Panahi, for his first film in the director seat. It has very much the feel of a Kiarostami film. It’s a ridiculously simple story, but it is beautifully told. Because it is about such a small topic, it is allowed room to breathe, letting us get fully involved in the simple, sweet story being told.

Young Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) wants nothing more than a big fat pet fish. The family already has fish, but she wants one of the fat ones she has seen at the store. Since it is the new year, she is hoping that her mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) will get her one, but they are fairly expensive. Eventually, Razieh’s mother gives her a 500 rial note for her to go and buy her fish.

But it can’t be that simple, of course. Razieh is first tempted by a pair of snake charmers (Hasan Neamatolahi and Bosnali Bahary) giving a show. Without Razieh’s permission or knowledge, one of the snake charmers takes her money as if she were offering it to him. Naturally, this upsets her (she’s expected to bring change, after all) because now she cannot get her fish. She pleads with the two men for her money back, and after a little teasing, they finally relent.

However, by the time she gets to the store with the fish she wants, she discovers her money is gone again. A careful backtracking of her steps reveals that the 500 rial note has wound up in a sewer out of her reach. The bulk of the rest of the film deals with Razieh attempting to retrieve the bill from the sewer, originally with the help of an old woman (Anna Borkowska), and eventually with her older brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili).

That’s honestly the entire film. And, as seems to be typical of Kiarostami scripts, at the end we suddenly veer off in a completely different direction once we have resolved Razieh’s issue with her missing cash.

Badkonake Sefid works primarily because of Aida Mohammadkhani as Razieh. She is aggressively and relentlessly cute and appealing as a character. Even better, she’s never cloying or sickeningly sweet. She’s just a very real little girl who really wants a white goldfish. It’s easy to sympathize with her throughout the film. It’s a difficult line to walk between making a child cute and appealing and making her so disturbingly cute that she becomes annoying. Mohammadkhani walks this line beautifully. She’s immediately a character we want to see happy.

Just as important a character is Tehran itself. Tehran appears as a foreign city to American eyes, of course, because so much of it is foreign. All of the women wear a hijab, for instance, which is certainly a site not typical in American films or cities. But the differences are merely superficial. It is a city like any other, filled with a variety of people, both willing to help Razieh and unwilling to be bothered by her. The old woman who helps Razieh track down her money is certainly sympathetic to the little girl. The tailor (Mohammed Bakhtiar) who owns the shop next to the sewer is initially unwilling to be bothered, and is only slightly more helpful once his shop closes. The man who sells the fish (Asghar Barzegar) doesn’t care about the poor girl’s plight at first, but later becomes a favorite character because of his willingness to give the girl the fish before she reclaims her money and his agreement to not sell the fish before she gets her money out of the sewer.

It’s a nice reminder that people are people everywhere. Particularly in a country as demonized as Iran is in the States, it’s important to see films like this that depict people as simply the people they are. The soldier we meet (Mohammad Shahani) might well be the picture of evil in many an American’s dark fantasy, but here, he’s just a nice guy who talks to a sad little kid.

For a typical adult audience, Badkonake Sefid probably isn’t enough of a story to hold a great deal of interest, but I can imagine that young children will find Razieh’s plight quite compelling and understandable. If I could ask for anything here, it’s a better set of subtitles. The ones in this version were sort of Pidgin English and required an extra level of translation to understand. It’s for that reason I’m not sure I’d put this version in front of my kids.

If another, better version is out there, this is a film I’d happily watch again, especially with kids willing to deal with subtitles.

Why to watch Ta’m e Guilass: A fascinating moral tale
Why not to watch: Slow to the point of stop.

Why to watch Badkonake Sefid: It’s surprisingly sweet
Why not to watch: It feels like not enough plot to carry even a film this short.

5 comments:

  1. I saw Taste of Cherry after his movie about the man who goes to the country to film a burial ritual (drawing a blank on the name.) One thing I took from those two was that he likes to shoot scenes of people driving on hillsides.

    For The White Balloon you wrote, "She’s immediately a character we want to see happy." I'm afraid I didn't. The way she acted at the beginning of the film was a complete and total spoiled brat. She wanted her fish and she wanted it NOW. As the movie went on and others treated her a little poorly and as things seemed to be going against her, she became a more sympathetic character to me. But then it goes back to bad kid again at the end with the way she treats the boy with the balloon. Once she's got what she wants, she completely blows him off even though he's been helping her out of the goodness of his heart and even though he's a lot poorer than her. In fact, it's probably because she's from a family with some money and he is poor that she treats him like a nobody when she's got what she wants.

    Is she cute sometimes? Yes, especially when she's spreading her skirt out trying to keep the man from seeing the money below where they are sitting. I just liked her a lot more in the middle of the film, not the beginning or the end. And I honestly think that was Kiarostami's whole point - to show the different ways she gets treated and that she treats others, depending on her situation.

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  2. Except for your description of the movie as glacially slow, "Ta’m e Guilass" sounds a bit like Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited, which also deals with suicide, persuasion away from suicide, and other existential questions.

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    1. @Chip--We'll disagree on Razieh, then. I've had two girls at that age, and while they can get annoying when they want something, it's not so much that they're spoiled, but that they're seven. And she does stop to talk to the balloon seller after she gets the fish and gets pulled away by her brother. I say no harm-no foul for her on that.

      @Kevin--I think it's a film you'd really appreciate. Actually, I think you'd appreciate pretty much all of the Kiarostami I've seen.

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  3. I adored Taste of Cherry, but yes, it's not exactly the fastest film. It was my first Kiarostami, and it really turned me on to his stuff. I tend to like talking heads films if they're done well, and Taste of Cherry is done well. I love how we have The Military, The Church, and Nature represented through the three people that Mr. Badii approaches, and it's interesting watching how each reacts to the prospect of suicide. And although you say it's slow, the first time I watched it, I was absolutely riveted; by the end of the film, I was clutching the sides of the sofa, sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what happened to Mr. Badii. Definitely good stuff in my book, but I realize it's not for everyone.

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    1. Kiarostami's films really aren't for everyone. In a way, he's an Iranian Bergman. Whenever I watch one of his films and we break the fourth wall, I'm always reminded of Persona. This is a comparison I'm fairly sure he wouldn't mind too much.

      Nice catch on military/church/nature. That went right over my head.

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