Before his recent death on July 4, filmmaker, photographer and poet Abbas Kiarostami spent nearly five decades experimenting with the cinematic form. His diverse collection of films engage relevant political and social themes from personal vantage points, merging documentary and fiction to see the world anew. Often, they are interested in the fallibility of perception and the consequences of emotional trauma.
The critical attention and adoration Kiarostami received helped popularize Iranian cinema in the west and inspire multiple generations of filmmakers. The Digital Gym Cinema in North Park has thankfully decided to honor him with a three-film retrospective starting Friday, Aug. 19.
For this writer, it's impossible to discuss Kiarostami and his films without getting personal.
As a sophomore Film Studies major at UC Santa Barbara, my film education was just beginning. I had grown up on a steady diet of Van Damme and Tarantino, but university life had introduced a tidal wave of international auteurs such as Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Lang.
One of my professors suggested I watch The Wind Will Carry Us, a film by Kiarostami that was screening at our local campus theater. I recognized the director's name from film reviews by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman and thought this might be a good introduction to his work.
I went in cold and came out dazed, struck by the graceful simplicity of each striking image. The film conveyed a quiet resolve and sublimity that left me both dumbfounded and awakened. So much life experience was on display, and I had hardly any for context. Back then I was obsessed with giving movies a letter grade, but The Wind Will Carry Us defied such categorization.
We had waited outside for three hours in the pouring rain. The south of France was known to produce downpours, but this weather system was unflinching. My fellow writers and I attending the Cannes Film Festival endured nonetheless for the opportunity to see the world premiere of Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love.
Settling into my seat at the famed Debussy Theatre, I could tell the audience was restless. Most people were damp and frustrated by the conditions outside. Not an ideal mood to watch a movie let alone a potentially difficult one.
Two hours later, after a flurry of walkouts and impassioned boos, most critics shrugged with indifference. They tweeted dismissals and moved on to the next screening. I found a quiet place and tried to make sense of the film's fractured beauty and undercurrent of violence, and how it managed to portray the dangers of denial and formality.
I'm still thinking about it to this day.
Kiarostami's films are layered and not easily digestible. Each new viewing presents something fresh, an unnoticed detail or newfound line of dialogue. They are vital, open to the world's contradictions, often mirroring our own lives as we grow older and change.
No film personifies this better than 1990's Close-Up (opening Aug. 19), a riveting doc-fiction hybrid that follows the case of Hossain Sabzian, an unemployed man arrested for fraud after posing as famous Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami himself plays a documentarian that interviews each of the subjects and even films most of the trial.
Sabzian's deception is fueled by a quest for respect. He sees Makhmalbaf (whose film The Cyclist has just been released) as an important artist whose work parallels the suffering of everyday life. In Sabzian's mind, taking on this new identity somehow weakens the class division between the rich and blue-collar folk he's come to represent.
"Human beings hide their true selves," the cagey subject says to the camera. That's never clearer than in the film's haunting final freeze frame. Kiarostami wrestled with this truth his entire career.
2010's Certified Copy (opening Aug. 26), where writer James Miller (William Shimell) and a bookstore owner named Elle (Juliette Binoche) embark on a daytrip through Tuscany, finds Kiarostami working outside of his native Iran for the first time.
Through the character's labyrinthine dialogue, Kiarostami explores ideas of artistic and emotional authenticity. Theoretical ruminations quickly take on a more immediate tone as it becomes clear their relationship is more complicated than originally thought. "It would be silly to ruin our lives for an ideal," James arrogantly says, not realizing it's already begun to happen.
Don't be fooled by the gorgeous countryside locations and calm pace; this quietly devastating and melancholy gut punch proves one the film's many truths: "There's nothing simple about being simple."
Sadly, Like Someone in Love (Opening Sept. 2) now stands as Kiarostami's last completed film. Set amid the neon glow of Tokyo, it's even more deceptively complex than Certified Copy. Young call girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi) lies to her jealous boyfriend (Ryó Kase) and ignores the calls of her visiting grandmother before being sent to the house of an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) by her pimp.
The simplicity of this setup allows Kiarostami to study patterns of deflection and regret. He's interested in how characters deny their true selves by hiding behind masks of language and roleplaying. Long conversations once again dominate the narrative, unraveling thematic motifs about society's predilection to sudden violence and denial.
During the film's stunning first shot, in which the camera sits static inside a busy nightclub, one character advises Akiko to "clearly define from the start what line cannot be crossed." Like Someone in Love plays like a tragedy in this regard, showcasing in sobering detail what happens when these boundaries break apart like shattering glass.
Re-watching all three films has once again forced me to address my own relationship with the world at large. Now more than ever, his work reminds me that change is always imminent. Being fearful of this fact will only prolong the inevitable.