Serene Ambiguities in Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry

If ever a collective nausea about the state of the world has swept our society away from the idealism that was once so central a part of the American identity, it’s here and now. This is not a solitary cynicism, as we often think of and experience it, but a shared nihilism across boundaries typically never crossed. The predominant feeling is that of directionless rage and anxiety, and a profound loneliness in that anger and fear. But we are alone together, facing each other in a dark room. It’s not much of a consolation.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winning 1997 film Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass) hinges on a concern that seems so much more tangible in times of universal grief, one that generally isn’t asked out loud but thought of unconsciously, Camus’ “fundamental question of philosophy”: is life actually worth living? Life storms us with variable burdens of eternal abuses and affronts. They’re always chipping away at us, or—perhaps we like to think—pressing us into diamond. In times of great social upheaval, political disquiet, economic strain, and communal tension, those stresses feel so much larger and sharper, less like a slow erosion of the soul and more like the incessant jabbing of a jagged knife. At some point, we might begin to wonder what the point of it all is.

Taste of Cherry, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), an everyday man with intentions of suicide, has prepared his own grave. He wants to pay a stranger 200,000 Irianian toman (﷼) to go to his grave in the morning and call out to him. If Badii responds, he wants the stranger to help him out of the hole; if he doesn’t, he wants them to bury his body there.

Kiarostami doesn’t tell us much about who Badii is, what sort of life he led, or what drove him to this state. There are small hints (it’s clear he doesn’t have money trouble, for one), but it’s immaterial. All we need to know is that he’s had enough. We know enough about the world we live in to fill in the blanks one way or another. Kiarostami’s films are driven by serene ambiguities. Here, it’s enough that we as a collective empathize in some indirect way with Badii’s unknown suffering. Maybe some of us understand it too intimately. By forgoing that specificity, Kiarostami ensures we share in his character’s secrets, internally replacing them with our own.

For a while, Badii struggles to identify a worthy hire for his job. His search requires a particular toiler with a special kind of loneliness and need. He combs the crowded streets around Tehran for anyone capable of carrying out his duty, deliberate and selective about every person he approaches. He first drives up to a construction worker at a payphone and overhears him arguing about money. He offers him cash for an unspoken job; the laborer threatens to smash his face in. Then he meets a homeless man digging plastic out of a landfill to sell to a factory for a paltry wage. The man brushes off Badii’s offer, saying, sadly, that he can’t help anyone because he doesn’t know how to do anything.

Finally, Badii picks up a meek hitchhiking soldier and gets him to agree to go for a drive. It ends abruptly when he explains his intentions and the frightened soldier jumps out of the car and flees back to his barracks, thinking him dangerous or insane.

Suicide is a mortal sin in the Islamic faith. As such, Badii’s request is more than just taboo, but an abominable offense akin to sacrilege. This is true of many major religions around the world, which generally see life as a gift to humankind from God. The irony, perhaps, is that we as a society tend to create the conditions that allow for the kind of anguish that can drive people to suicide but, as we are unwilling to see the world structurally, we tend to only recognize such feelings as evidence of individual failures.

Despite our belief in the sacred essence of life and the value of community, we sometimes fall into the view that each person is entirely responsible for their own circumstances. This is a particularly American way of envisioning the social fabric of civilization, but there are generic human impulses that pull us toward this egoism, as well. By putting Badii on his quest for an accomplice in his suicide, Kiarostami reminds us of our inextricable connection to our neighbors. He makes us question how we would react in dialogue with someone who has given up, as so many around us do every day. Perhaps we could broach those conversations sooner.

Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badii (IMDB)

After the soldier escapes him, Badii catches a glance of a man lying alone in a field. He watches him and slows to a stop, considering talking to him. At that moment, another man emerges from the undergrowth and the two men begin talking loudly. Mr. Badii realizes they’re workers on a break. He looks away and drives on. It’s a telling moment, depicted in silence. Is Badii truly looking for a gravedigger—a job either of the men are clearly capable of—or is he simply looking for someone who understands his loneliness?

So much of Taste of Cherry feels relevant to the 2020 experience, in which small distances have never felt greater. Central to the film is a philosophical question that global politics has concerned itself with for centuries: how do we reconcile the individual and the communal? It seems like our mutual pessimism is a result of our mutual separation from one another, and no one is really willing or capable to extend over the rift, so we stay insulated within ourselves. But at what point do we realize we can’t do it all alone?

Badii persistently reaches out to others for help, and, without spoiling the end of the film, some of them reach out to him with empathy and concern in return. It is only through that act of collaborative healing that we can find any hope in a society more psychologically fractured than it has been in decades. What Kiarostami shows is how every life is the offspring of its community, and every society bears some responsibility for the welfare of its people. Badii turns his potential suicide into a cooperative endeavor; death is shared as life is.

Of course, Kiarostami is not a provocateur or bitter filmmaker, and Taste of Cherry is ultimately a meditative, even occasionally uplifting observation of the core of humanity. One of the film’s beautiful small moments is when Mr. Badii runs the front end of his car off the side of a steep hill, leaving him stranded.

Immediately, a group of jovial diggers rush over and pull his car back onto the road without a word—only a knowing smile through the windshield. It’s not their fault that this man’s vehicle has gotten stuck, but they assist him anyway, because they share in his space, in his culture, in his community. We inhale the breath of other people, we bring within ourselves their good and their bad. Kiarostami seems to ask us, “So why not make it good?” It’s an encouraging prayer to put to film.

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The Criterion Collection’s original 1999 DVD release of Taste of Cherry only had a single special feature on the disc: a 1997 interview with Kiarostami conducted by film scholar Jamsheed Akrami. (Of course, back then, the film was essentially brand new.) In addition to the Akrami interview, which touches on censorship in Iran, how Kiarostami chooses subjects for his films, the perception of Iran and Iranian cinema in the West, and more, Criterion’s updated Blu-ray edition of the film—sourced from a new 4K digital restoration—comes equipped with a few welcome new supplements.

The most impressive inclusion is the sketch film Project. More of a look behind-the-scenes than a true short film, the piece blends footage from the finished film with preparatory scenes acted out by Kiarostami and his son Bahman—blueprints the director used to develop ideas for Taste of Cherry—and footage of the director working with the real actors during production. It’s a revealing look at Kiarostami’s process and the gradual formulation of the film itself.

There are two new special features, both produced by Criterion, included on the release, as well: a film essay by Kristin Thompson from 2017, in which she analyzes Kiarostami’s use of landscapes in Taste of Cherry and other films such as Where Is the Friend’s House (1987), and a 2019 interview featuring film scholar and author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Hamid Naficy, in which he discusses how Kiarostami’s background in advertising and institutional filmmaking influenced his later work, the balance between the director’s use of realist and self-reflexive techniques, and his relationship with Iranian culture and society.

The booklet also features an essay by critic A. S. Hamrah. All of this is to say that Criterion’s updated edition of Taste of Cherry is a far more robust and satisfying presentation of the film than its initial release, and one far more worthy of its monumental stature.