A transitional work that’s enriched by comparison to those which surround it, transmuting humanistic, ground-level reportage into deceptively simple storytelling and vice versa.
Produced during perhaps the most fertile period of Abbas Kiarostami’s abundant career, Life, and Nothing More… is often positioned as the midpoint of the so-called “Koker Trilogy,” a suite of stories set in and around the eponymous mountain village. Kiarostami for his part has resisted this designation, suggesting that the film be grouped instead with 1990’s Close-Up and 1994’s Through the Olive Trees (recognized as Koker #3), each a fraught, scintillating collision between straightforward documentary, naturalistic fiction and historical fable. The film may be best considered some combination of both, a transitional work that’s enriched by comparison to those which surround it, transmuting humanistic, ground-level reportage into deceptively simple storytelling and vice versa.
The story here concerns a nameless film director (Farhad Kheradmand), who’s presented as a lightly fictionalized version of Kiarostami himself, returning to the site of his recent Koker-set project. The area around that town, nestled in the fertile hills of the Gilan province, has suffered catastrophically from the 1990 Manjil–Rudbar Earthquake. Setting out on the long drive from Tehran, The Director intends to survey the damage and check on the cast of his movie, taking his young son along for the ride. Making slow progress along debris-cluttered backroads, the two encounter a variety of people coping with the aftermath of the quake, resulting in an anecdotal structure in which the original goal of the narrative seems to get further and further out of reach.
This isn’t Kiarostami’s first take on the road-movie genre, but it does pioneer his trademark use of in-car-camera, with the vehicle functioning as a multi-use moving metaphor, it’s sleek mobility an inherent sign of economic privilege, it’s windshield a symbolic nod to the movie screen. The story riffs on 1987’s Where Is the Friend’s Home, the first of the Koker films, in which the eight-year-old boy for whom The Director is now searching conducted a similar journey, traipsing up and down the hilly landscape in order to return a notebook to an imperiled classmate. This narrative conceit goes back to the director’s first short film, “Bread and Alley,” (1973), in which a simply errand to pick up bread turns into a Herculean labor, finessed further in The Traveller (1974) as a young boy struggles to attend a soccer game. Where Is the Friend’s Home also involves an errand usurped by external moral exigency, compounded upon in Life, and Nothing More…, the seeker repeatedly diverted from his essential task by both random chance and competing claims for his attention.
Progressing from Close-Up, the director’s first overt attempt to blur fact and fiction, this is another tale of a director coming into unexpected contact with his own work, finding that the lines between a creator and his audience are not as strict as standard interpretation might indicate. The urban setting that defined Close-Up thus transitions back into a rural world in which traditional customs are at odds with modern values, The Director’s attendant passage from city to country fittingly fraught with both disaster and hope, paralleling the opening up of experience and empathy that comes with cinematic education.
It’s also fitting that the film starts with The Director’s second consecutive attempt to enter the Koker area, a jarring choice that heightens the in-media-res sense of a story bursting out from all efforts to constrain it. In his second definitive move toward accessing the broad space just outside the standard filmmaking frame, Kiarostami draws back his focus wider and wider as the film progresses, a formal process that occurs in conjunction with The Director’s frustrated attempts to reach the town, which remains largely inaccessible, the sole route in and out blocked off by rubble. Surrounded by locals capable of traversing the entire area on foot or by animal, the protagonist’s car seems begins to feel like an obstacle rather than a tool, something that needs to be shed before he can gain proper admittance to this traditional space. As in all of the director’s best work, this subtle intimation of ideological dissonance allows the film to operate on two levels, as both a symbolic effort to attain greater understanding through an ascetic embrace of formal simplicity, and a clear-cut, bittersweet chronicle of life resuming its normal patterns in the wake of a heart-rending disaster.
In constructing this deceptively complex two-tier narrative, Kiarostami repeatedly returns to a now-familiar visual metaphor, featuring the patient, deep-focus observation of people navigating steep, circuitous mountain paths, a structuralist metaphor that literalizes the moral evolution his characters are making. It’s a maneuver that blossoms in the film’s magnificent final shot, later developed upon even further Through the Olive Trees, in which the climactic action occurs hundreds of yards away from the camera, cloaked in silence but still expressively conveyed, again underlining the expansive scope of the project. In Life, and Nothing More…, the parting shot is an act of concision, The Director integrating completely into the landscape as his car trundles upward, twice helped back onto the road by a bystander climbing alongside him on foot. In this simple, wordless exchange of gestures, Kiarostami again finds bracing beauty in a simple clumsy attempt at transcendence, a humanistic reminder that while these endeavors are not always successful, the beauty of the struggle for progress is itself a spectacle worth capturing.