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SAIS Review 21.2 (2001) 217-224

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Film Review

The Universal Iranian

Jean Michel Frodon

A Review of the Filmography of Director Abbas Kiarostami.

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most influential filmmakers today. Though he has been making movies since the early 1970s, he did not begin receiving international recognition for his work until the 1990s. Kiarostami first achieved international status when Western critics discovered movies such as Where is My Friend's Home, Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry (winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (his latest feature film, released in 2000). He dominates the movie scene in a country beset by political and religious censorship and economic hardship. His movies and those of others in Iran remain both popular and vibrant.

Kiarostami's voice is most striking. Farsi is often soft and musical, but no one can put things to words with quite the mastery he can. The rhythm of his language, his long silhouette and well-drawn features, an honest but reserved smile--the discrete nature of the eye behind the camera capture the director's aristocratic presence. They explain why he is considered a great director almost as if by birthright. But one cannot be satisfied with appearances, particularly from this artist who could hardly be considered naïve. Since he first began with "simple children's stories," his movies have deeply questioned society's system of representations. Homework and Close-Up are particularly striking examples.

While working as a graphic designer and a writer in the advertising industry in Iran in the late 1960s, Kiarostami, then thirty, decided one day to use cinema within a public institution, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults [End Page 217] (KANOUN). At the institute, he produced and directed his first short movie, Bread and Alley (1970). With his first film, he demonstrated a mastery of the art form for which he has become famous. His use of cinema touches the medium's very essence: the intersection between the exact portrayal of reality and the creation of one's own personal style as a director.

This view of the world, which he examines with a variety of themes, survived the censorship of the Shah's dictatorship, the instability of the revolution, Khomeini's repression and censorship, and the war with Iraq. Often criticized, even in the West by those who prefer dead or imprisoned artists, Kiarostami has maintained his own esthetics and themes, characterized by coherence and flexibility. His plots are marked by his documentary style, the prominent role of children, and his habit of returning to roads he has traveled before, but in a different direction. This strategy is represented, for example, by a winding road that appears (some would say stars) in the trilogy comprising Where is My Friend's Home, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees. We find the same metaphor again in Taste of Cherry and finally--with a good dose of "self-irony"--in The Wind Will Carry Us.

Coming from this artist, who with words and silence finds the strength to travel this road, the softness of the voice is not a façade; rather, it underscores a true elegance of spirit. Kiarostami's softness hides the iron will of a perfectionist. We feel the demands of the perfectionist in the almost cruel rigor of his first full-length film--the beautiful Traveler (1974)--as well as in the director's biography, Abbas Kiarostami, Dreams and Lies, filmed by Jean-Pierre Limosin for the television show Cinema de notre Temps (Cinema of Our Times), which captures Kiarostami maturing as a director. Kiarostami is a sensitive man and makes sensitive films. He received the Prix Rossellini in 1992 from the Cannes Film Festival--where he was called one of the rare heirs of neo-realism--and the Prix Fellini from UNESCO in 1997. The awards are paradoxical: if the director of La Dolce Vita symbolizes a "constructed cinema" opposed to that of Roma Cita Aperta, Kiarostami's...


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