Taste Of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)
Iran (1997) Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
We all have our reasons for doing something drastic, even if others disagree with them, or more to the point fail to understand. They can’t possibly know what is going on in our heads to see it makes sense to us, but on the other hand, maybe we are too dogmatic in our own thoughts to notice when they might be talking sense in opposing us…
Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), a middle-aged man driving through Tehran with purpose, and clearly a lot on his mind. He occasionally stops to talk to people but seems to be scouting them for something and drives off disappointed, until he comes to a shy young Kurdish soldier (Safar Ali Moradi). Heading back to his barracks, Badii gives the lad a lift and talks about his own army experiences, and seeing his honesty, drops a bombshell on the soldier.
Badii plans to kill himself that night via overdose and has already dug the grave. He asks the soldier to arrive at 6:00 am and if he doesn’t respond, cover his body with the earth then collect the large sum of money from the car as payment. The soldier refuses and runs away, so Badii continues his search, each time finding someone who does his best to talk him out of taking his own life.
Suicide is a morbid premise for a film, but in the hands of Abbas Kiarostami it becomes the foundation for philosophical debate, conducted through his inimitable restrained style and presented in a typically minimalist fashion. Taste Of Cherry as a title doesn’t offer any insight into the subject at hand, deriving instead from a conversation Badii has with a prospective accessory to his voluntary passing.
As obtuse as this may sound, it is actually rather poetic and is just one example of the many things, no matter how small, that Badii might miss if or when he pops his clogs. Not that Kiarostami is trivialising suicide, quite the opposite – he is proposing that no matter how bad things are for someone, there are still some reasons to keep living regardless of how small or incidental they may be.
The conceit of the story is that Badii doesn’t disclose his reason for wanting to end it all, but his mind is made up, evident by the trouble he has gone to by digging his own grave and deciding the day to do it on. He has a sum of 200,000 toman ready to compensate whoever takes on the job, he just need someone trustworthy, preferably with money troubles, to do so, hence his seemingly fruitless search.
Having no luck in the streets of Tehran where he exudes the aura of a kerb crawler as he slows down to eye potential targets, Badii casts his net further afield to outside the city where workmen toil under the sun in the hills, soldiers do their training exercises, or lone toll booth operators watch on.
Coming across the young soldier, Badii thinks he has his man already, but the lad was only conscripted two months ago and still quite nervy. His request refused Badii questions how the lad expects to kill someone in the name of war if he can’t even stand to shovel dirt on a dead body. With no robust comeback, the boy simply runs away.
Unlike the next person Badii finds, an Afghan seminarist (Mir Hossein Noori) who also refuses due to his religious objections. He is able to expound further on this and counter Badii’s rationale of freeing himself from the torture of his life, and doing it himself absolves others from committing murder. Actually, he has a point there, but even shovelling the dirt is tantamount to abetting this sin, so the apprentice priest is off too.
Finally, Badii meets an elderly taxidermist Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri) who does agree to help Badii, but not before he tries to talk him out of it. Bagheri was also once desperate enough to want to end it all until he found salvation at the eleventh hour. Whilst empathetic to Badii, this gives Bagheri some leverage in talking him round and it seems he might have got through to him.
Kiarostami was working on a tight budget despite being a prominent Iranian filmmaker, but this has no bearing on how he is able to draw so much drama out of what is ostensibly a chap driving around all day. It is of course more than that – it is the mystery of his mission; it is how the vast landscapes engulf his car as his search becomes more desperate; it is how the golden hues of the sun’s rays grow dimmer as the day goes on.
Later in the film, Badii visits Bagheri at the lab where he teaches animal dissection. He doesn’t go in, waiting outside for Bagheri to finish, as the lesson continues through audio only. What we hear makes what we don’t see even more unpleasant than if we did have visual accompaniment, which other directors would have shown. This is an example of the kind of power Kiarostami had that other directors didn’t.
Making his debut in this film as Badii was Homayoun Ershadi, whom Kiarostami is said to have discovered when he was sitting in his car whilst stuck in traffic in Tehran, Luckily, Ershadi could do more than sit in a car and conveys the complexities of Badii as a man with an unusual problem on his mind without affectation or artifice. The key is how he makes Badii not a depressive or nihilistic but a realist who believes he is akin to being a philosophical suicide bomber rather than a moralistic or terrorist one.
I have to confess I have got more out of some of Kiarostami’s other films than I did Taste Of Cherry, despite being a Palme d’Or winning film, but I was still captivated by the premise and the humane intelligence of the thought-provoking discussions contained within.