The Palme d'Or-winning "Taste of Cherry," about a middle-aged man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) cruising for a fill-in Kevorkian to help with his suicide, is provocative in the sense that in many countries, suicide is both illegal and blasphemous. Yet, like most of Abbas Kiarostami's work, it functions less as a combative manifesto than as a series of contradictions that decentralize its protagonist's solipsism, fitting their dilemma into larger imbalances of power in contemporary Iran.
The film is loosely structured around hiring interviews conducted by Badii with three potential candidates unwittingly riding shotgun in more ways than one. The exposure to his passenger's lives and viewpoints causes Badii's goal to slowly disappear into rearview, much like his car does when Kiarostami pulls back for landscape shots of a car circling the mountainside. One candidate is a Kurdish soldier uncomfortable with orders outside of the military, another an amiable Afghan seminarist nonetheless concerned with blasphemy, and the third a taxidermist from Azerbaijan whose background in nature and death, as well as a specific family medical issue, allows him to pragmatically view the task at hand in a larger evolutionary context. Likewise, their backgrounds subtly shed light on the collateral damage of Iran's conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reason for Badii's suicidal aspiration is deliberately left unclear, making the action both deeply personal and existentially universal. The ambivalence about the act is extended to the procedure itself: Badii has dug a hole in which to overdose on sleeping pills during the night, requiring the hypothetical assistant to make sure he has died the morning after, with explicit instructions to complete the burial only if he doesn't respond, pay still promised either way. Given that Badii is the owner of a car in a mountain of motorless migrant laborers desperate for a day's work, and given the transactional nature of the task at hand, the discrepancy in class taints the hiring process with an exploitative imposition, muddling our sympathy with the protagonist and eventually with the film itself.
Without spoiling too much, the story of a religiously dubious quest to transcend life from a mountain ends up aligning as much with the rest of the Iranian new wave as with Alejandro Jodorowsky's epic mind-fuck "The Holy Mountain." Kiarostami builds to a meta derailment partially foreshadowed by the docu-fiction blur of his previous masterpiece "Close-Up," and the lack of closure is less frustrating than liberating. The dialectical inquiries of the preceding 90 minutes provide less a defining statement on one man's suicide than a Socratic method-like approach to sorting through the confusion of one's surroundings.
In a Q&A at a 2014 Syracuse University screening, Kiarostami said, "the film was banned in Iran for being a suggestion for suicide. But in truth, it is a suggestion to live." Of the filmmakers facing censorship in Iran, Abbas Kiarostami's output at first feels like the least overtly radical. Where fellow Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi flirt with protest art and the problem film in ways that give their respective house arrest and exile understandable context, Kiarostami nudges societal foundations by throwing his own authority as a storyteller into question. He more quietly reflects on structural power. With "Taste of Cherry," as with many of his other masterpieces, the tools for any such work are extended, like an olive branch, to the spectator in a way that ensures its power is much harder to pin down and snuff out.
"Taste Of Cherry" plays at the Walters Art Museum on Oct. 22. A discussion about the film with critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire will follow the screening.