Monday, March 30, 2009

What is Cinema? More than Cinema: The Ontological Discourse of Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees (1994)

“In art cinema terms (though Americans don’t know it yet), we are
living in the Age of Kiarostami, as we once did in the Age of Godard.
Interestingly, both Godard and Kurosawa have publicly ‘anointed’
Kiarostami, giving him their blessing, even as the Cannes jury
awarded him the Palme d’Or.”

-Phillip Lopate, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically [1]

There was no better filmmaker working at the dawn of the twenty-first century than Abbas Kiarostami. [2] Certainly there were many contemporary directors who deserved the title of master – Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Manoel de Oliveira, Eric Rohmer, and Béla Tarr represent but a sampling; however, there was no other living filmmaker (excepting for the moment Jean-Luc Godard) who had contributed similarly to global audiences’ ongoing and ever-changing understanding of the nature of cinema. Few other artists in the history of the medium have so unrelentingly addressed Andre Bazin’s still seminal question, “What is Cinema?,” and even fewer have provided such original insights. While there is nothing entirely new in Kiarostami’s art exactly, there is, then again, nothing like it either. Kiarostami’s cinema is the most Bazinian of its generation and at the same time the most Godardian. His work bridges the gap between neo-realism and formalism, fiction and nonfiction, in a manner that not even Godard himself nor Jacques Rivette could manage. Abbas Kiarostami, in other words, is one of the rare figures in the history of film art who can lay claim to the creation of an idiom that is all their own.

Indeed, it is this very idiom that will be examined subsequently in detail. However, before commencing with this undertaking, it remains to isolate the precise assumptions that will guide this study, and especially that justify the grandiose claims made at the outset. First, it is assumed that cinema is in fact an art form, and moreover, an autonomous art. This is to say that cinema has its own ontology, and as such can be discussed in terms of cinematic specificity. Second, it is assumed that all films should function to enhance one’s understanding of the medium. In other words, a film can be judged and accorded value in terms of what it teaches one about the nature of cinematic expression. Third, it is assumed, similarly, that cinema is a discursive medium. In this way, then, films are to be evaluated in terms of their narrative fluency and finally in the relationship between this same discourse and the form adopted by the artist. And fourth, though of course by no means is the preceding exhaustive of the forthcoming’s presuppositions, it is assumed that the director is the principle creative agent responsible for the film’s communication. As such, the director’s complete corpus will be assumed to possess significance with reference to the individual film being discussed.

This specific film is Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton, 1994), the third and final work in Kiarostami’s ‘Koker trilogy,’ which similarly includes Where is the Friend’s House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast?, 1987) and Life and Nothing More (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992). The intention underlying the selection of Through the Olive Trees is to provide a work at once representative of Kiarostami’s art in the broadest possible terms, and concurrently to provide an example of his art that most fully satisfies the criteria defined above. In other words, it is presumed that Through the Olive Trees is one of his greatest achievements as an artist – along with Close-up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990) and The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, 1999) – and similarly one of the richest texts in contemporary world cinema. In examining this particular film, it is proposed that the scope of Kiarostami’s artistry is made manifest, even as questions are addressed concerning filmic ontology that are by no means the sole purview of the director. Thus, Through the Olive Trees has enormous baring for both auteurist and neo-formalist approaches to the medium, of which this study represents a bit of each.

As to the specific methodology employed, Through the Olive Trees will be discussed again in terms of the singularity of Kiarostami’s idiom. As such, the following dissection will address the position that this film occupies within the trilogy that it caps, the idiosyncratic and at times quite theoretical handling of space that marks the work, and lastly the relationship between art, artist, and audience that further determines the uniqueness of his contribution. In the final analysis, the greatest defense for Kiarostami is neither his politics, nor is relationship to Iranian culture, but rather the art itself.


As it has been noted, Through the Olive Trees is the third film in a trilogy; the title of the trilogy, ‘Koker,’ derives from the name of a village central to each of the three narratives. In the first film, Where is the Friend’s House?, a young boy embarks on a journey to return one of his classmates’ notebooks. In spite of his mother’s refusal to allow him this action, he sets off anyway, less afraid of his mother’s punishments than for what his friend might incur at the hands of the schoolmaster the next day. After a lengthy odyssey through the labyrinthine streets of the village, the boy finally gives up, returning home where in fact he does his friend’s homework. The film is the sort of work that invariably ends up with the description, “deceptively simple.” [3] Deceptively, as this is a film, in the first place, that rigorously identifies with the child (hence, there is a quite rigorous relationship established between form and discourse): it does so in both its shooting of the child at eye-level and also in the opacity of the adult’s logic, which is brought into relief by the child’s crystalline decisions that consequently propel the film’s narrative. Moreover, Kiarostami manipulates the diegesis to communicate the child’s psychology, whether in the form of a howling wind, the descending darkness, or any other like element that similarly provokes fear or anxiety in the child.

Following this definitive representation of childhood psychology and humanist compassion, Kiarostami’s next film in the trilogy deals with considerably graver subject matter: the Koker earthquake. In the summer of 1990, a massive quake devastated Northern Iran, killing forty thousand, and destroying more than seven hundred villages. [4] In the fall of that same year, Kiarostami returned to location of the first film and made Life and Nothing More (a.k.a And Life Goes On). The narrative of the second film focuses upon a director and his son who set off to find the young actors that Kiarostami employed in Where is the Friend’s House?. Utilizing lengthy travelling shots through the windshield – thereby confirming his connection to Roberto Rossellini and Voyage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954) – or out the side windows of the pair’s automobile, Kiarostami documents the actual process of cleaning up (and in the most nascent stages, rebuilding) after the pestilence. Furthermore, the film similarly registers Kiarostami’s search for the actors from his earlier film, even as he does so by means of fiction. It would be misleading precisely to characterize the film as a ‘fictionalized documentary,’ however, as the work itself never purports to being non-fiction. Surely, it contains an element of vérité in the sense that actual locations and persons are represented without embellishment; still it maintains its fictional narrative structure, unlike a work such as Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un ete, 1960-1) that purports to being a representation of non-fiction. In this sense, then, it is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction that never explicitly rejects its fabricated construction – and in this sense it is a world apart from Jean Rouch and his cinema vérité fellow travelers.

As for the film’s relationship to the trilogy, it can be observed that beyond the sensitivity that Kiarostami displays toward childhood logic – which in the case of this film is decisively elevated: at one point, the director’s son offers a poignant apology for God’s innocence in the face of the destruction; likewise, he serves as a model of perseverance, which is itself the primary theme of the film – the true connection rests in their shared geographical location. More to the point, Life and Nothing More derives its raison d’etre from the spatial and temporal reality of the first film’s actualization. Simply, it is a film whose logic is determined by the veracity of the making of the first. Alternatively, the third and final work in the trilogy, Through the Olive Trees, finds its similar justification in the fact of the second film’s fictional construction. In other words, Through the Olive Trees takes the making of a film in Koker, in the aftermath of the earthquake – the existential reality of Life and Nothing More – as the subject of its narrative.

Yet, on the way to articulating just how Kiarostami underscores the fictional aspect of the second film, a brief description of the narrative, paying particular attention to the internal relationship between fiction and non-fiction, would seem beneficial. From the opening monologue, Kiarostami lays bare the film’s conflation of fiction and non-fiction: “I’m Mohammed Ali Keshaverez, the actor who plays the director. The other actors were hired on location. We’re in Koker, about 400 kilometers... no, 350 kilometers north of Teheran, where an earthquake destroyed everything last year.” He continues, “we’ve come to recruit a young actress,” at which point he and his female assistant assess a crowd of young Iranian women, asking certain select girls for their names and addresses. One of the girls whom they single out, Tahereh, becomes the film’s female protagonist. Indeed, she, like the other actors and crew (who also appear in the film) all maintain their real identities. This insistence upon verisimilitude, in fact, comes to influence the film’s reproduction of the event, as it points to the fictional character of the film inasmuch as the director is not “Kiarostami” but instead Mohammed Ali Keshaverez. Kiarostami himself makes this distinction in an interview, stating that if he intended for the actor to play him, he would have said so in the dialogue. [5] Hence, again this can be seen as a further distancification between the existential reality of the second’s construction and the third’s reproduction. Kiarostami is laying bare the fictional nature of the work, and by implication, that of the second film as well.

Returning to the diegesis, after the credit sequence that follows this opening reflexive prelude, Kiarostami reconvenes his narrative with a three and a half minute plus travelling shot through the front windshield of a truck. The camera does not deviate from this placement, filming only what can be seen from this fixed position. As the sequence commences, a radio broadcast can be heard in the background, providing the exact date of the narrative using Iran’s four separate calendars. On the Western calendar, it is May 30, 1993. [6] After receiving the information, the vehicle stops for the moment to pick up a passenger. We learn through the off-camera dialogue that the person whom the driver (the assistant director Mrs. Shiva) picks up is none other than the teacher from the first film of the trilogy, Where is the Friend’s House?. They discuss his performance in the film and he confirms that his success was due to the fact that he actually was a teacher in reality. In this way, then, Kiarostami diegetically communicates to his audience that he has in his films used non-professional actors, which aligns him to a tradition most often associated with the Italian Neo-realist movement, to which he has confirmed his debt. [7]

After dropping the teacher off and subsequently receiving a pair of potted plants from some young local boys for the shoot, Mrs. Shiva arrives at Tahereh’s home. When she arrives, the girl is absent. Distressed by her absence, she converses somewhat testily with the girl’s grandmother. Momentarily Tahereh arrives with a dress for the shoot. Much to Mrs. Shiva’s consternation, she has selected a dress that is far more decorous and modern than the filmmakers had originally requested. While it could be said that this calls attention to Kiarostami’s self-awareness of his own culturally imperialistic reflex, it is perhaps more accurate to say that what concerns Mrs. Shiva and the director indirectly is to succeed in reproducing the details of the scene to be shot – a recreation of a sequence from Life and Nothing More, significantly. Separately, however, the girl wants to confirm her own modernity and in this way retain her dignity.

In the following sequence, the scene is reconstructed with Tahereh playing the role of a newlywed wife and a young actor playing that of the husband. This same scene occurs late in Life and Nothing More and features the young gentleman carrying on a conversation with the director from the second film, who reprises his role in Through the Olive Trees. In this sequence, the former tells the director about his familial losses in the earthquake and the circumstances surrounding his marriage to the young lady, which is quite exceptional given the recent tragedy. Throughout their conversation, in both Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, the woman remains principally off-screen, as the camera fixes on the conversation conducted at the bottom of the stairway – to which it should be added that Kiarostami uses the same location in each film. However, the actor that has been selected for the role of the young husband ultimately proves insufficient – given that he stammers whenever he speaks to women – and so the director is forced to reenlist Hossein, the actor who played the same role in Life and Nothing More. Unfortunately Hossein and Tahereh themselves have a back story: Hossein, shortly after the earthquake, asked the latter’s grandmother for her granddaughter’s hand in marriage. She repeated refused him and Tahereh herself remained aloof to his advances. Likewise, she also refuses to respond to Hossein during their scene, which in the end leads the filmmakers to issue an ultimatum – either she does what the script requires or they will replace her with one of the other girls they rehearsed in the opening scene. She acquiesces and they reprise the scene; however, it still does not come off smoothly, as in take after take Hossein mistakenly says that he lost 65 people in the earthquake rather than the 25 that the script allocates.

When Hossein is finally confronted with why he continues to make this mistake, he explains that in fact he lost 65 people in the earthquake, not the 25 that they would prefer he say. Indeed, in the second film, he says 65 during this same sequence. However, lest one mistake Life and Nothing More for non-fiction, Kiarostami makes it quite clear that in fact he acted in the last feature: this is established in conversations between Mrs. Shiva and Hossein as she rehearses him for the role he is reprising. Strangely enough, however, one senses with the last feature, given especially Kiarostami’s practice of matching non-professionals with roles tailored to their vocation or status, that the director was talking to genuine newlyweds. This interpretation would seem to be reinforced by the off-handedness of the sequence itself in the film: demonstrating Kiarostami’s admitted proclivity toward moments that in no way advance the plot, the sequence in question is bracketed by more noteworthy sequences involving the director’s son – the one in which he acts as a theologian and another where he disappears amidst the rubble of a nearby building. Yet the very fact that Kiarostami has selected this point in his film to reconstruct within Through the Olive Trees underscores the construction of what even would seem to be extemporaneous otherwise. In effect, Kiarostami is making it quite clear that the former film, in spite of the fact that it was referencing an actual event and featured real locations and nonprofessionals, was still exactly that, a film (or a fictional film, more precisely). What is more, the fluidity of the roles – which is to say the doubling of the newlywed husbands in particular – divests the performers from the characters they are playing, consequently exposing the non-fictional framework upon which the fiction is being constructed. This of course is pertinent to all fictional film, but is rarely recognized when not reflexively underlined.


However, it is in the complexity of his handling of space that Kiarostami most roundly poses the question of cinematic specificity. In the sequence immediately following the credits, the aforementioned four and a half minute travelling shot, Kiarostami never once presents the sequence’s human subjects on screen. Rather it is only their voices that are heard throughout the shot’s duration. In this sense, Kiarostami confirms his particular aesthetic program from the outset: the extension of cinematic space beyond the limited area of the frame. For Kiarostami, the frame itself is only a component of the mise-en-scène. Bazin once said of Jean Renoir that he “understands that the screen is not a simple rectangle but rather the homothetic surface of the viewfinder of his camera. It is the very opposite of a frame. The screen is a mask whose function is no less than to hide reality than it is to reveal it.” [8] Certainly the same likewise can be said of Kiarostami, who systematically conceals figures from the audience, which perversely extends the film’s space well beyond the constituent frame. This of course is accomplished via the usage of non-diegetic sound, creating a cinema that exists just as much off-camera as it does on; Through the Olive Trees is, in this way, “more than cinema.” [9]

A similar illustration of this same dynamic occurs in the following scene, where Mrs. Shiva goes to retrieve Tahereh. In this sequence, Kiarostami stages the grandmother on a porch in front of her home. Therefore, when Mrs. Shiva arrives, she addresses the woman outside. Once the pair are joined by the delayed Tahereh, the camera changes its set-up and films the door behind which Tahereh, now inside, is changing. However, given the new camera set-up, there are no longer any characters on-screen, and yet the voices of all three can be heard alternately. Hence, Kiarostami is working with three centers of interest at this point, all off camera, but all very much extant in the art itself. Parenthetically it would be of some interest to compare Kiarostami’s strategy to that of Jacques Tati in Playtime (1967). Whereas Tati’s use of sound is compositional, leading the viewer’s attention across the master long shot, Kiarostami refers to off-camera sound to expand the space of the art. In this way, then, Through the Olive Trees represents a reconstitution of filmic space to account for the space in which the film is itself being made.

Kiarostami further extends his consideration of space’s a priori relationship to the filmed in the subsequent recreations of the Life and Nothing More scene. In these, which again feature Tahereh and her two husbands separately, Kiarostami establishes a dialogue between three discrete, yet congruent spaces. The first is the space that is being filmed by Kiarostami’s crew, at the bottom of the stairs. The second is the space immediately above the first, where Tahereh is watering the plants. This space, at least if we are to assume that Kiarostami’s crew will film the scene in the same way that it (supposedly) filmed the same space in the earlier picture, is not represented on-screen. And third is the space that the filmmakers themselves occupy, presented on an axis perpendicular to the first. Variably, then, Kiarostami shoots all three spaces, though significantly never resorting to an establishing shot to contextualize the three within a broader space. However, he does confirm the connection between these three through the use of non-diegetic sound. In this way they maintain a consistent dialogue with each other forging a larger space that is greater than the sum of what appears at any point on-camera. Moreover, it is worth noting that here Kiarostami presents a space that explicitly is on-camera, and one (or many) that are explicitly off-camera. Hence Kiarostami is reintroducing his audience to the fact that cinema is but a fraction of reality.


Yet the question remains as to what these spatial limitations communicate. Referring to the last sequence elucidated, it is worth nothing certainly that the viewer accepts a role beyond that of passive observer. In this sequence, and in the others that adopt a similar dialectic between on-camera and off-camera space, the viewer is called upon to become a co-creator of the art itself. When Kiarostami cuts between the various spaces, having already established the contiguous relationship of each, the other two remain part of the viewer’s retained experience of the film. This becomes clearest in the sequences located on the balcony atop the staircase, where Hossein works incessantly to convince Tahereh that she should marry him. With the aid of the repeated mistakes and technical lapses, Hossein makes his plea before Kiarostami’s unflinching camera; all the while, the filmmakers scurry to resolve the problems off-camera (which is naturally assumed rather than seen). But this is precisely the point, that the viewer contributes to the film’s narrative by adding what Kiarostami’s leaves off screen.

Of course, there is a far more significant example of this in the film’s heralded last sequence. The scene begins with the film crew packing up to leave the sight, as the actors and crew-persons jockey for the limited amount of space provided by the vehicles on sight. Eventually, Tahereh, of her own accord, decides to depart, flower pot in hand. Seeing her go, the filmmaker tells Hossein that he is young and that he could most certainly walk back to the village. Heeding the director’s advice, Hossein quickly catches Tahereh and picks up where he left off earlier, desperately attempting to win Tahereh’s hand. She continues to refuse and eventually he pulls back as she zig-zags up a second hillside. Once she has disappeared over it, he redoubles his efforts and follows after her. At this point the director appears atop the first hill, now watching Hossein climb the winding path. Subsequently, Hossein reaches the top as well. There, Kiarostami cuts, framing Tahereh deep in the distance of a large grove of olive trees. Hossein follows after her, reaching her in a massive meadow to the left of the grove. By this point of the extended long take, both are tiny figures quite far away from the static hilltop camera location. The two specks continue to move left across the screen, until they both finally disappear into a small ravine on that side of the frame. A moment later, Kiarostami cues the music, Concerto for Oboe and Strings, by Domenico Cimarosa. As the concerto begins to build, a small white speck reemerges from the obscured valley. Shortly, it becomes clear that a person is running back in the direction of the camera. It appears to be Hossein. Kiarostami cuts to the credits, where the music continues. Indeed, there is no final resolution as to what this running means, just as the audience at no time sees the precise expression on his face. Likewise, it is also true that at no time during this sequence does the audience witness first-hand what occurs between the pair–they do meet deep in the meadow, but given Kiarostami’s literal rendition of the distance between his camera and the couple (in both visual and aural terms) it is quite impossible to distinguish whether words are being exchanged, let alone what they are saying.

Still, the spectacle of Hossein running back in the direction of the camera cannot help but signal something for the invested viewer. It seems at this moment that it is possible and perhaps even likely that finally she has succumbed to his overtures, that finally she has consented to become his wife. Of course the evidence for this reading is rather crude: the sudden lilt in the music and Hossein’s gestural change (again, the audience does not see Hossein’s facial expression in the end, which given the medium’s traditional reliance upon the externalization of psychology in performance, is every bit as willful as the other omissions). And yet, there is at the same time the stated music and the change in gesture. The very fact of these two elements must not be underestimated. Indeed, Kiarostami most certainly could have ended the film with the pair together in the distance or even after their disappearance into the ravine, and the audience would know just as much for certain as they do with his chosen ending. However, it is not certainty that Kiarostami is after. In fact, the conclusive is ultimately at odds with what he is trying to accomplish in Through the Olive Trees: audience involvement. Here, it is the viewer that ultimately maintains the power of interpretation over the final sequence, selecting whether or not Hossein and Tahereh will unite. At the same time, Kiarostami balances this latitude with the suggestion that they do get back together, lest someone in the audience leave his film feeling badly about what they had just witnessed. (During the press conference following the 1997 New York Film Festival screening of A Taste of Cherry [Ta'm e guilass], he suggested that this was his reason for including the reflexive post-script at the end of that bleaker work.) [10]

Furthermore, this solicitation of audience involvement does not surface in the film’s ultimate plan-séquence alone, but rather recurs systematically throughout the work. In the sequences treated in detail formerly, wherein on and off-camera space dialogue extensively, Kiarostami is again calling upon the audience to fill in the gaps left by his discriminating camera. Indeed, it is as if the spatial elisions – when considered alongside the narrative omissions in the final sequence – provide for an unfinished cinema requiring viewer completion. In this respect, Kiarostami’s humanist philosophy becomes clearest: rather than considering himself superior to whose who will see his films, he instead writes his own egalitarian vision into the structures of the work. His audience is no less a creator of the film than he is himself. Parenthetically, it should be observed that while this structure does occur in other films, it is often for different ends. In Close-up, he allows his viewers to formulate their own understanding of what art is; in A Taste of Cherry, it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not the protagonist has killed himself, and by implication whether they should themselves continue living; in The Wind Will Carry Us, his most systematic consideration of off-screen presence to date, he asks his viewer to consider the nature of the soul; while in his latest work, 10 (2002), Kiarostami implores his viewers to make social and political judgements for the first time in his mature corpus. Hence, the shorthand description for Through the Olive Trees absences might be simply that the audience is explicitly called upon to complete his film (by uniting or keeping apart Hossein and Tahereh) making this work indeed his most self-reflexive.

Of course, the reflexivity of Through the Olive Trees is one of its defining aspects, both in terms of Kiarostami’s ever-reflexive body of work, and especially in comparison to 1990s art cinema. This element has been touched upon in the mentions of fiction and non-fiction at work in the film and in the film’s relationship to the earlier works. It is likewise evident in the remarked upon usage of the character’s real names in the picture, which draws attention to the artificiality of the film’s actualization. What remains to be said, however, is that Kiarostami further signifies his own artistic agency near the end of the film: again at the point when Hossein decides to continue on and follows Tahereh up the second hillside, Kiarostami cuts to an image of the director, who unknown to the audience has followed. Yet he at no time signals to either to make his voyeuristic presence known. Consequently, Kiarostami cuts to a shot from the director’s perspective, which noticeably differs from the prior one framing Hossein as he makes his climb. This time the camera occupies the director’s position behind a set of branches which are featured in the foreground of the shot. Thus, Kiarostami seems to be articulating his own role in the construction of the narrative as a compiler of forms who nevertheless refuses to manipulate the characters he has created – even if he would prefer that they get together. This judgment becomes relatively clear when one considers the prelude to this ultimate sequence, where the director nudges Hossein, telling him that he is young and can walk, once he sees Tahereh leaving on foot. Hence, it seems that Kiarostami, through the inherently reflexive agency of the director, is trying to propel his work toward a final resolution, which again we can either accept or refuse. In fact, Kiarostami conflates the film-within-a-film resolution with that in the broader narrative, through his reflexive signification of the director’s presence in each.

Still, he maintains the openness of his narrative, which to be certain has become something of a signature for the director: as much as there is space for the viewer to decide in his art, Kiarostami never fails to inscribe his own imprint within the structure of his films. For instance, in A Taste of Cherry, the last of the three people that the protagonist picks up, who are themselves types, reaffirms the value of life in the beauty of nature; the doctor, on whose motorcycle the director rides toward the finale of The Wind Will Carry Us, offers a similar perspective; and then there is the defiant close of 10 in which a woman shows the protagonist her shaved head. In each of these cases, there remains room for disagreement, but the films’ author has made his point clear. It is interesting therefore to note that Kiarostami makes this double signature of openness and authorial presence clear reflexively in Through the Olive Trees, which is truly the most self-conscious of an exceedingly self-aware corpus.


Thus, Through the Olive Trees becomes something of a signature work for Kiarostami, though not simply by virtue of its self-reflexivity. Rather it is a film that thoroughly assimilates many of the master’s key themes and preoccupations into a single text, be it the relationship between the fictional and non-fictional in cinema, the nature of space in the medium, his proclivity to leave the works themselves unfinished, or the resultant egalitarian outlook that can be discerned from this tendency. Likewise, Through the Olive Trees deserves to be recognized as one of the medium’s singular achievements of the last decade or so. To the extent that Kiarostami utilizes one of the medium’s inherent limitations, the boundary of the frame, this is a film that illustrates the medium’s capacity for formal transcendence. In this sense it is also a supremely didactic film to the degree that it demonstrates that what might be considered a limitation otherwise, can in fact work for the discursive advantage of the picture. Presence, in other words, does not require a material expression in order for the audience to understand its veracity. This indeed opens up the medium itself to the representation of the immaterial, which Kiarostami would elaborate most fully in The Wind Will Carry Us, where again he takes the concept of the soul as his subject. In this way, Kiarostami contributes (along with Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and a handful of the others) to the expansion of the art beyond what normally has been thought possible, because of the supposed limitations of the medium.

However, Kiarostami’s worth cannot be distilled into this single, albeit significant contribution to film art. Nor is it the sum of his worth even the formal manipulations that have been considered to this point. What remains to be said is that Kiarostami imbues his film with a warmth and emotional depth that is rare in any work, let alone in the tradition of Formalist art. Certainly, one needs to be skeptical of such a value judgment, given especially the unquantifiable nature of such an assessment. Yet there is no denying the feeling that the actor playing Hossein exudes, nor is there any doubt as to the emotional trauma he will experience should he not win his Tahereh. Surely there is an emotional depth that pervades Kiarostami’s work from Where is the Friend’s House? onwards. Indeed, were it not for the depth of feeling registered in his films, a work like Through the Olive Trees would not work in the end, as the audience member would be far less inclined to complete the film as has been suggested. In this way then Kiarostami actually constructs Through the Olive Trees on the basis that the viewer will be invested enough in Hossein’s plight to complete the film in his favor. Hence, Through the Olive Trees additionally relies on performance for its relative success or failure. As such, it can be said of Through the Olive Trees that it is its own defense: to the degree that the viewer complies with the artist to complete the work itself, one can measure Kiarostami’s film to be either a success or a failure.

And finally, it remains to be said that this is a film of immense hope. While Life and Nothing More is situated in the autumn, this is a work that is presented in springtime. Truly, this season’s sense of rebirth permeates the film’s narrative: once again, the landscapes are green; the leaves on the trees are budding as they do each year; the schools have reopened; young couples are remarrying (both on film, and depending upon our interpretation, off as well); and lastly, art is being produced once more. Like the structural dependence that the film places on the performances of the actors, so too does Kiarostami write this feeling of film into the film’s form. Indeed, this is a film where form and discourse are at every sense consubstantial, be it for theoretical or emotive ends. Through the Olive Trees is the definition of internal organic consistency, and is in this sense a work of substantial worth.


[1] Phillip Lopate, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 365.
[2] At the conclusion of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Kiarostami seems to have lost this title due to his relative lack of productivity since 2002. In his place, this writer would propose either Hou Hsiao-hsien for his continued mastery - now a mere twenty-five years on - or fresher face, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose last three features, Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) are as strong as any films made this decade.
[3] To be exact, a Google search of the name “Kiarostami” with the phrase “deceptively simple” resulted in 3,970 matches.
[4] on Koker earthquake
[5] Lopate, 362.
[6] This can be seen as another reinforcement of the film’s fictional character to the extent that we are told at once that the earthquake happened last year and at the same time that it is 1993, three years after the tragedy.
[7] Ibid., 352-3.
[8] Andre Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. Francois Truffaut (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 87.
[9] Jean-Luc Godard, of course, said this apropos of Renoir. Godard, “Elena et les hommes,” in Jean Renoir, ed. Truffaut, 287.
[10] Lopate, 367.

Yale University's Cinema at the Whitney program will screen Through the Olive Trees this Saturday, April 4, at 7:00PM , at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut. Through the Olive Trees will be followed by Victor Erice's rarely screened The Quince Tree Sun (1991) at 9:15PM. Both screenings are free and open to the public.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Film Comment Selects: Jerichow & A Week Alone / Una Semana solos

Warning: the following contains partial spoilers.

Where is cinema today? To answer this question on the level of the nation, our current decade has provided a few new answers beyond the familiar France of the postwar era or the Taiwan and Iran of the 1980s and 90s (the first and second still hold, while the third arguably does not). Among these current hotbeds, few seem as substantive and surprising as Germany and Argentina: the former has reclaimed its leading status in the European cinema through a "minor-key," intimate psychological idiom, concentrated in its Berlin School, which differs substantially from the big subjects and historical specificity of the nation's 1970s New German pinnacle, whereas Argentina's rose to a position of prominence just as the South American nation commenced its economic free-fall in the late 1990s. Naturally, questions of class have proven cardinal to the work of many of Argentina's leading filmmakers.

Back across the Atlantic, writer-director Christian Petzold's Jerichow establishes a similar class consciousness in its exposition of dishonorably discharged ex-soldier Thomas's (Benno Fürmann) ascension from the bottom of the economic food chain, following his unexplained beating and robbery - ostensibly to pay off an outstanding debt - in the film's opening scene. Petzold's accomplished direction is immediately manifest: a hand-held, mobile framing of Thomas immerses the spectator in the film's diegesis, while identifying the narrative's principle focus from the opening shot; after a cutaway to car filled with gentlemen arriving at what appears to be a funeral, this group escorts Thomas back the latter's country family home. One of these gentleman finally breaks the silence with a tender "sorry" that he then follows immediately with a screaming tirade where he begins by shouting "damn it." After a line of expository dialogue reveals the setting to be the East, the aforesaid gentleman discovers a cache of bills that Thomas had been hiding from the group. This leads to a blow to the back of Thomas's head, and his consequent night passed out in the grass of his newly deceased mother's homestead.

In the meantime, Petzold briefly depicts the film's second and third leads speeding along the countryside as Thomas lays motionless in the vicinity. Petzold withholds their meeting momentarily, he is a filmmaker who systematically delays and postpones acts of confrontation, instead mapping wealthy Turkish immigrant Ali Özkan's (Hilmi Sözer) driving itinerary, which returns to the narrative fore shortly with Özkan's inebriated fishtail off the side of the road, into a nearby river. Thomas, who is at the moment walking home with his groceries, purchased by food stamps, aids the driver, taking credit for the accident to save Özkan from having his license revoked (after spotting a roll of cash on the driver's seat). Thomas drives Özkan home where he is introduced to the latter's beautiful German wife Laura (Nina Hoss), who slips cash to the romantically interested Thomas as he begins to walk off.

Özkan, however, arrives at Thomas's shortly thereafter, with a job proposition: having had his license suspended, Özkan has use of a driver to shuttle the gentleman between his many food stands; ex-military man Thomas, for his part, rapidly shows himself to be very capable of not only the stated position, but also as a bodyguard for the Turkish entrepreneur. Of course, Thomas's presence also poses a romantic threat to Özkan, who barely masks his culturally-reinforced jealousy with leading questions concerning his wife's attractiveness. This envy compels Özkan to demand that Thomas follow Laura as she drives to a vendor not on her official itinerary - again, there is s subsequent, delayed pay-off for this plot-line - and further, to orchestrate some beach-set intimacy between the pair, with Özkan looking on furtively. Hear, Özkan demands that the pair dance, which they do closely in the foreground, as the former slinks off into the distance. As such, Petzold perfectly visualizes the film's central narrative thrust with a new couple forming with the recession of a third.

After nearly falling from a nearby cliff where Özkan attempts to spy on the pair, Thomas and Laura take the drunk gentleman home. As he is about to leave, Thomas passionately embraces Laura in a hallway just off from Özkan's bedroom; the pair slip down to the floor where they commence screwing with Özkan only a feet away. The latter eventually calls for his wife, providing yet another delay in narrative - and in this case, physical - fulfillment, to which of course Petzold will return.

This recurrence occurs on the occasion of Özkan's departure for his homeland; after Thomas drops his employer off at the airport, Petzold lingers long enough to show Özkan staying with neither Thomas or Laura aware of his presence. Still, Petzold continues his strategy of narrative delay even here, with Thomas first rebuffing Laura's advances, and second with Özkan's return not corresponding to their preceding adultery. Without elaborating too much further on this latter point, suffice it to say that the film's withholdings always do eventually find confirmation; Petzold maintains a high degree of consistency on the level of narrative structure throughout, facilitated by the director's skilled control of not only narrative information, but of an often voyeuristic visual field.

Then again, Jerichow does maintain a second, social dimension hinted at in Thomas's food purchase and visit to a work agency. He is at the very bottom of the economic latter, following again his dishonorable discharge and the death of his mother, where he meets the wealthy immigrant Özkan. In this regard, Petzold reverses traditional economic cliches, procuring a narrative that trades on German class anxiety rather than on a simple description of racism. Here, it is the Islamic immigrant who has the upper hand in a new Germany, not only over the economically disadvantaged Thomas, but likewise over Laura who Özkan later admits to have "bought." Power, as it does nearly everywhere, comes from economic rather than social status - and it is a power that is leaving the Europe of old behind.

Celina Murga's A Week Alone (Una Semana solos), co-written with Juan Villegas, likewise constructs an economically layered society, though in its case divided on the more traditional - and static - basis of an upper class deriving from the descendants of European immigrants and a mestizo lower class. The latter is represented by housekeeper Esther (Natalia Gomez Alarcon), who watches the film's set of wealthy cousins as their parents vacation, and by the twenty-three year-old mother's teenage brother, Juan (Ignacio Jiménez), who quickly becomes an object of interest for older teen cousin Maria (Magdalena Capobianco) and tween Sofia (Eleonora Capobianco). Juan, however, in arriving at the family's residence, located in a heavily guarded gated community, is made to wait outside the subdivision, seemingly for hours, even after the family matriarch confirms his visit over-the-phone.

Inside, the two families and their assorted, hanger-on friends, spend their daytime and evening idle hours playing video games, watching television, swimming - both at their house and complex pools; Juan is chastised at the latter for wearing tennis shoes (an unexplained prohibition) - inventing games, and most distinctly, breaking into the many empty homes that populate the neighborhood. Throughout their routine, Juan is largely ignored by the young men, and engaged by the two girls - particularly by Sofia who reaches out to Juan at a pivotal late juncture in the film's narrative. (Speaking of narrative, Murga's is exceedingly loose and open-ended in contrast to Petzold's rigorously controlled story structure.)

Of course, Juan, like the two girls, does possess a distinctive psychology, in his case as an outsider, in comparison to the mostly interior-less young men. Then again, Murga's most vivid characterizations are those of the two girls, whether it is the nascent sexuality of Maria who flirts and makes out with cousin Facundo (Lucas Del Bo), before throwing him over once Juan arrives, or that of Sofia who finds herself in the more precarious position of a girl on the brink of pubescence. Sofia is also Murga's richest and most endearing character, whether it is her interactions with Juan and Esther - she confesses her desire to have a first communion like everyone else (including the devout housekeeper), which her atheist parents have not allowed - her uncomfortable exchanges with her older cousin, or most spectacularly, her vocal performance at a teen dance, much of which Murga shoots in an extended close-up. For this writer, Eleonora Capobianco's amateur performance of this pop song may just be the most endearing on-camera musical exhibition since Andreas Müller's committed dancing to the Robbie Williams song in Valeska Grisebach's Longing (2006) - a film that remains the masterpiece of the Berlin School.

Ultimately it is Murga's ability to limn vivid female characters, who never devolve into ciphers, that accounts for one of the female director's greatest strength as a film artist. Likewise, Murga here, as in her superlative, Rohmer-inspired Ana and the Others (2003), richly articulates her film's setting, be it the space's warm climate (particularly in the languid nocturnal passages), the changing qualities of light from a mid-morning walk to school to the oblique angle of the sun's rays late in the afternoon, and finally to the gated community itself, with its unlocked homes, rent-a-cops and unbreachable outside walls. Whereas fellow countrywoman Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman, 2008) distinguishes her art on the basis of the pervasiveness - narratively, visually, formally - of her metaphors, Murga's art is grounded in the concreteness of her places and characters, which nonetheless explicitly point to social inequalities. Martel's mise-en-scène is remade in the image of her subject, while Murga's exactly observes to find her equivalent subjects.

Update: See also R. Emmet Sweeney's elegant A Week Alone appreciation over at Termite Art, with its emphasis on ritual - most memorably their collective predilection for Nesquik - and its insightful exegesis of Juan's marginal position within the frame.