Taste of Cherry: Sisyphus and a Mulberry Tree

The film Taste of Cherry (1995) immediately alienates its audience with an opening shot of a man with dark, enormous hollows under his eyes and bruised lips as he peers outside his car. He sits in silence, the charged ambiance of the city serving as the only source of life and noise outside the comfort of his vehicle. As he quietly and meticulously navigates the circus that is Tehran’s busy streets, laborers of all shapes and sizes hassle him for work: the men flock to his car window with enthusiasm, hoping their subtle glances toward the man would grant them a day of work. However, the man behind the car repeatedly rejects the laborers advances, and continues to look out the window for a particular person – or something, it’s still not clear five minutes into the film – as he drives out of the main street to the barren, industrial outskirts of town. The dialogue between Mr. Badii and the workers conveys a sexual undercurrent, heightening the feeling of uncertainty in regards to what is really taking place. A typical member of the audience might begin to question about the film: What is this somber-looking man searching for, and what type of labor requires him to seek a highly specialized worker in the varied and vast landscape of Tehran?

The director of Taste of Cherry, the acclaimed Iranian-born auteur Abbas Kiarostami, is no stranger to employing a protagonist behind the steering-wheel of the car; he’s also not afraid of concentrating his camera lens on the driver in close-up throughout most of the film’s narrative, especially a man who would rather ask questions to the passengers sitting in the seat next to him instead of revealing anything personal about himself. Cars are prevalent in Kiarostami’s cinema, however they’re not objects specifically loaded with symbolism – freedom, existential mobility, alienation, social escape – as in many of the great road movies and car cult films from the American filmography.[1] For example, in his film Ten (2002), Kiarostami follows an unchanging female driver as she navigates through Tehran and picks up a variety of passengers with her car (all female with the exception of her young son; a stark contrast to the all-male passenger list in Taste of Cherry). The passengers (including the driver herself) all deal with a variety of problems and social issues, shared with the audience through conversations captured on two steady-cams planted on either sides of the dashboard. The film serves as a reflection of contemporary social problems arising in Iranian society, in particular providing an apt discourse on the problems affecting women. However, Ten refuses familiar audiences of Kiarostami’s work one of the principal pleasures associated with his cinema – the prevailing motif of nature and characteristic long shots of the rich Iranian environment – by excluding any external shots of the car itself, in turn transforming the car into “a container of the characters and their dramas.”[2]

In comparison to the female protagonist of Ten, Mr. Badii, the silent protagonist of Taste of Cherry, stands at a position of privilege in the context of Kiarostami’s filmmaking technique. The audience is able to see the sprawling fields, the winding roads, and the assortment of characters outside the dashboard window of his Range Rover. The camera follows him out of his car as he engages in conversation with the people he encounters during his journey, as well as cutting to the window of his dimly lighted apartment as he paces back and forth in the tiny space in the middle of the night.

Metaphorically, Mr. Badii is free within the bounds of his own film. He possesses the will (or perhaps, Kiarostami granted the will) to stop his car and to venture outside. However, the character focuses himself on a simple yet problematic task that defines the film’s narrative: finding a sympathetic soul willing to cover him with earth the morning after his suicide. The hole is already dug beneath a mulberry tree, and Mr. Badii just needs to swallow his sleeping pills. The simple instructions repeated to his potential assistants resemble lines from a folktale:

“Look at that hole. The hole right there. Listen to me carefully. At six in the morning, come here and call me twice: “Mr. Badii! Mr. Badii!” If I respond, take my hand to help me out of there. Take the money and go. If I don’t respond, throw 20 spadefuls of earth on top of me. Then take the money and go.”[3]

And perhaps the structure of the folktale and Kiarostami’s poetic inclinations serve as the only two apt forms of discourse capable of tackling the taboo subject of suicide in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a country where Islamic law rules supreme, the verse in the Qur’an: “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you” bears a particular potency: one must not disobey the law of the land. French-Algerian philosopher and author Albert Camus famously states in his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

And like Camus, Kiarostami uses a realm of absurdity – post-revolutionary Iran – to address the problem that defines his film. In a way, the film is an adaption of Camus’s text as it addresses suicide – and life’s absurdity, plus its inherent beauty – through its characters and their frequent trips up and down the rugged Iranian hilltops, much likes Sisyphus and his rock. In both Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, there is a common element, which is the celebration of life versus death.[4]

In an interview by The Iranian in 1998, Ali Mahdi asks Kiarostami to comment on the optimism his film holds, despite addressing the loaded story of a man who plans his suicide. The interviewer finds the optimism of Kiarostami’s perspective immediately through Mr. Badii’s primary concern about the way he is going to die than whether he could die; he notes how his thinking is positive from the beginning because he defies the expectations associated with a suicidal man.[5] Kiarostami responds to the question by first addressing the Islamic culture the film was born, citing the negative emphasis of suicide and the vitalizing effect of crying and grief: “These elements have carried the religion through time and are part of what keeps Islam alive”. However, his positive way of looking derives itself not from his culture’s negativity, but what he sees as a product of “one’s individual outlook”. Kiarostami states, “Happiness and sadness are intricately tied. Beneath any layer of despair, there is hope and a reach out for happiness. At the same time, beneath any kind of happiness there is a layer of anxiety and despair. ” Kiarostami, like Camus, acknowledges a space for happiness in the Absurd Man’s realization of the world around him, in addition to his consciousness of despair.

In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes “the wisest and most prudent of mortals,” which the gods condemned “ceaselessly to roll a rock on top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back on its own weight.” The film Taste of Cherry seems obsessed with the notion of labor and its dutiful repetition, and the workers who submit to its unending toil. From the film’s onset, the sounds of laborers desperate for a day’s work are heard outside Mr. Badii’s vehicle. They press against his car windows in large numbers like flocks of sheep, questioning Mr. Badii in a manner that cries urgency and importance – almost like his life depends on it. As he drives out of the bustling street towards the outskirts of town, he only encounters more workers, scattered in various acts of agricultural and industrial work. Even the children he encounters are preoccupied with the notion of work, as they entertain themselves with a game associated with fixing and driving cars. The people captured in the film almost seem to be serving a punishment of an uncertain length, and the desolate landscape of browns and muted yellows only adds to the nullity of the terrain. In one shot, soldiers are seen marching in synchronized fashion during their morning routine, chanting “Revolution!” as they head down the hilltops; the sight of soldiers crying for a revolution in such a demilitarized zone brings forth a sense of irony.

In his analysis regarding Taste of Cherry, Bert Cardullo mentions that the location and its conditions would possibly drive anyone to commit suicide – a direct quote from the taxidermist, a man that Mr. Badii picks up later in the film – with its desolate roads and bleak appearance.[6] However, Mr. Badii appears to be the only man in possession of a death wish – and coincidentally – the only character in a cast of menial workers and displaced persons who we never see working a genuine job. On first impression, the man possesses a freedom unparalleled to the workers he encounters in the film, as he wordlessly drives around in his Range Rover. He seems well-off, with his offer of $200,000 tomans (around $5,000-$6,000 today) toward anyone willing to bury him. However, Mr. Badii seems entrapped in a parabolic loop [7], as the hilltops blur together in appearance, giving off the heightened impression of him driving around in circles. The framing of Mr. Badii in a tight close-up, as well as the use of the shot-reverse-shot technique to engage both Mr. Badii and his character (instead of shots capturing both Mr. Badii and his passenger in the same frame) alludes to Mr. Badii’s eventual separation of the world through suicide and his passengers’ estranged positions in Iranian society.

The three men Mr. Badii eventually propositions in the film all represent a variation of job choices, as well as providing an impression of the three stages of life: a young Kurdish soldier, an Afghan theologist, and a veteran Turkish taxidermist; all the passengers are from prominent ethnic minorities in Iran. The soldier, the first person Mr. Badii picks up with his car, is the only person to react haphazardly by Mr. Badii’s request, as he jumps out of his car and skirts down the hilltop once the opportunity is open to him. The young man, shocked and unprepared to handle the situation of absurdity before him, refuses to look into the void any longer; in a sense, the Kurd takes a literal “leap of faith” in the face of Mr. Badii’s impossible request. “You’re a Kurd, aren’t you? A Kurd must be brave,” Mr. Badii replies in response to the soldier’s repeated insistence that he would not carry out Mr. Badii’s request after his suicide. Mr. Badii’s lines bear a significant potency for Iranians and anyone familiar with the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 that decimated up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians in a brutal genocidal campaign inflicted by the Iraqi government. And despite his position of economic disparity and the possibility of acquiring the wealthy sum for completing the task, the soldier insists that his palms are indeed made to work (in response to Mr. Badii’s claims of his incompetence) but are not made to shovel earth on a dead man who inflicted death upon himself. As both a soldier and an individual of Kurdish descent, the young man has most likely seen his fair share of death and senseless murder, and the possibility of Mr. Badii choosing to end himself by his own hand appears incredulous at best. “Don’t worry, I am not crazy,” Mr. Badii unsuccessfully reassures the solider just before he decides to jump out of the car.

The second man he picks up is an Afghan theologian who teaches at an Islamic seminary. The man, soft-spoken yet adamant with his beliefs, cites the Qur’an when faced with Mr. Badii’s proposition. He cites that “God entrusted us with one body” and inflicting torment upon it was a sin. However, Mr. Badii immediately shuts down his argument by replying that he doesn’t need a lecture. Mr. Badii is a man, who in the face of the absurd that Camus explains, rejects his first solution of faith (an option that is apparent all around him in his Islamic country) and turns to the choice he explicitly states is open to all of us: suicide. Mr. Badii is at odds with the certainty of the absurd that Camus explains in The Myth of Sisyphus, instead opting for the renouncement of self that suicide allows. [8] In addition, his entire existence in the film operates in a realm of uncertainty and ambiguity; in a way, the man has already begun to erase himself of this world with his well-prepared grave. However, Kiarostami stretches this systematic erasing of Mr. Badii’s character by refusing to elaborate on his character’s history or past: a family, job, or even a concrete reason as to why Mr. Badii wants to commit suicide is never given. Through this implication, Kiarostami creates an opportunity for his spectator to imagine new dimensions to his film by creatively interpreting a reality beyond the elusive ending of his film:

“I have a friend who is an architect. He tells me that he is at his best professionally when he designs structures for odd lots because these lands do not fit into the normal patten and he has to work within a great deal of limitations. So, he must be creative and he enjoys this. It is these restrictions that provide an opportunity for people to be creative.” [9]

The last passenger, the comical taxidermist that goes by the name of Mr. Bagheri, agrees to help Mr. Badii in his task, but not before he explains his own suicide attempt and its resulting effect upon his world outlook. He begins to describe the joys of life as he brings Mr. Badii’s car to a more desirable road bearing lush trees of vibrant reds and greens, allowing both the audience and Mr. Badii himself to see with his or her own eyes a visual representation of the beauty he boasts of. Mr. Bagheri inquires of Mr. Badhii after his apathetic response to his account, “The people on the other side would like to take a look here and you want to rush over there!”; the vision of Sisyphus and his eternal condemnation in light of his passion for life immediately comes to mind. And in this poetic and elaborate response, Mr. Bagheri asks a question that gives the picture its title: “You want to give up the taste of cherries?”. Mr. Bagheri is the only man who dares to confront Mr. Badii’s suicidal response to the absurd condition by vocally responding to Mr. Badii’s choices and “diseased” outlook, urging him to accept a third option[10]: a consciousness of the world around him, along with the absurd. Mr. Bagheri’s insistence that Mr. Badii should view him as not a stranger, but a friend, reinforces his acknowledgement and familiarity of the absurd and Mr. Badii’s current conflictual state of mind. After Mr. Badii drops the taxidermist off at his workplace, he immediately rushes to confront him after a moment of apparent mental agony, insisting that Mr. Bagheri, in addition to calling his name twice, should throw two rocks at his body, “in case I’m still alive”. The new addition to what seemed like a concrete plan implies a possible, newfound contentment with life in the face of the absurd.

The end of Taste of Cherry serves as the creative outlet that Kiarostami wishes his audience to acknowledge. As Mr. Badii lies in his grave staring at the moon, the film seems to end with a fade to a black screen for around one minute and a half. However, the diegetic sounds of birds chirping – as well as the gentle hum of the rain – imply a state of renewal. When morning comes, there has been an obvious and startling cinematographic change in the film as the screen bears a grainy texture, implying the use of a handheld camcorder. The soldiers seen marching throughout the film play with the flowers found on the hilltop as they rest in the grass, and Mr. Badii – now Homayon Ershadi, the architect assigned to play the character of Mr. Badii – is seen casually smoking a cigarette, alive and well. The film crew is seen on a hillside, and Kiarostami himself is seen advising a particular shot of Mr. Badii’s Range Rover as it disappears behind the hilltop before he yells that the shoot is over. An instrumental version of the Dixieland tune “St. James Infirmary” plays on the soundtrack, providing the only source of nondiegetic music in the entire film. To Kiarostami, the ambiguous fate of Mr. Badii’s suicide attempt – was it successful or not – should not worry or unsettle his spectators because life, even after the narrative has ended, goes on. In essence, Kiarostami allows his audience to imagine Mr. Badii as happy.

[1] See the films cited by Rolando Caputo in his article regarding Ten in Senses of Cinema regarding this trend, in particular Week-End, Two Lane Black-Top, Vanishing Point or Eat My Dust.

[2] See Caputo’s article in Senses of Cinema. In a way, the car in Ten can be seen as a theatrical stage for Kiarostami to engage his audience in an essential dialogue between his characters, giving light to issues of social status and interpersonal dramas.

[3] Kiarostami is no stranger to folktale. For the influence Persian literature has had on his work,see: Shirin (2008) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

[4] Refer to the book “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami” by Alberto Elena for more autobiographical insight on Kiarostami, as well as how it has shaped his acute views on both life and death.

[5] The interview was conducted after a guest screening in the United States in Ohio. In the interview, Kiarostami also brings forth examples of his filmmaking technique, which relies on improvisation and an element of spontaneous action.

[6] See “Suicide is Painless,” published in the Hudson Review.

[7] Mentioned in Cardullo’s article.

[8] See “Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd” by Abraham Sagi for a more detailed analysis of The Myth of Sisyphus and the irrationality behind the choice of suicide according to Camus.

[9] Cited in the same interview from The Iranian; the friend he might be referring to is Homayon Ershadi, the actor who plays Mr. Badii in the film who also happens to be an architect (and an untrained actor).

[10] Yet again, see The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus.

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