LIFE AND DEATH don't get the box office respect they once earned in the heyday of postwar European cinema, when Bergman, Antonioni, Resnais, and others introduced existentialism to the movies. Our American response to such profundity is usually to mock, occasionally to emulate (or both, in Woody Allen's case), but seldom to take it so seriously.
THE WIND WILL CARRY US
written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami with Behzad Dourani runs November 10-16 at Egyptian
Over in Iran, however, culturally isolated first by the Shah and then by the Islamic Revolution, there's a sympathetic yet dislocated continuity to this tradition of philosophy on celluloid, translated into a different cinematic language. Veteran director Abbas Kiarostami was making movies before the revolution and has lately come to enjoy international acclaim for works including 1996's Cannes-winning Taste of Cherry. He's been lauded by critics who are perhaps too nostalgic for a bygone age, who still value the opaque, symbolic, and often downright enigmatic. Popular audiences, on the other hand, will find Kiarostami tougher going but— for those patient enough to oblige him— ultimately rewarding.
Those who recall Cherry will immediately detect its similarity to The Wind Will Carry Us, which reworks some of its themes in what could be called a sequel to the earlier film. On an almost identical dusty hillside road, another solitary vehicle winds past green fields, yellow earth, and the occasional defiant tree. It's a harsh, punishing landscape of despair—but also of beauty. It's Beckett territory, and the dialogue we hear between the Jeep's bickering occupants is fittingly absurd and funny. "We're heading nowhere," complains one guy. "I know what there is. Nothing," says another. They're lost or, at least, struggling to find a Kurdish village far from Tehran, driven by their leader Behzhad (Behzad Dourani), the only one of the trio we ever see. Called "the Engineer," he's a quiet, watchful, ironic presence; his jeans, round wire-frame glasses, and cell phone would place him at home in any European metropolis.
WHY HAS HE COME to this humble village? Kiarostami deliberately takes a long time to say, letting us stew with the Engineer as he waits for an old woman to die. Possibly a filmmaker himself, the Engineer apparently intends to document a strange native grief ritual of self-scarification. In the meantime, a young boy named Farzad serves as his guide and intelligence officer in the picturesque mud-walled hill town, which suggests both Dr. Seuss and M.C. Escher with its endless ladders and stairs, up-and-down disorientation, and undulating whitewashed contours. In this timeless idyll, the Kurds are clearly amused with the Engineer, a figure of rationalism and discontent, and Kiarostami clearly means to contrast their rustic, grounded life with his ridiculousness and alienation.
Each time his cell phone rings, the Engineer futilely races to a hilltop for better reception like a postmodern Sisyphus, searching for clarity that never quite comes. There, he banters Hamletlike with a peasant—a grave digger?—who's excavating a mysterious hole yet remains unseen beneath the earth. Hardly the stuff of comedy, you think, but the Engineer's exasperated conversations here and with the kid are often quite funny. Perhaps Kiarostami has learned a thing or two from Woody Allen; although his obdurate resistance to cutting between both sides of a conversation—as in Cherry—prevents obvious reaction shots or hilarity. Yet in its willful repetitiousness and hero's bewilderment, Wind almost suggests a Persian Groundhog Day.
Eventually, impatience causes the Engineer to snap, but he's righted by the advice of the anonymous digger and a kindly rural doctor, who counsels, "Idleness leads to corruption," and praises "the wonders of nature." After all the build-up (and Wind undeniably drags), such wisdom seems commonplace and anticlimactic, but Kiarostami's entire point is how jaded, modern man loses touch with these simpler truths. In his determination to capture death (on film, anyway), the Engineer denies the organic flow of life and its unhurried, inevitable outcome. If his eyes are finally opened to nature's implacable beauty, viewers, too, may agree that restoring one's perception of it is the real consolation of philosophy.