Through the Olive Trees focuses on the pure question of the interaction between truth and a filmed truth.
If Abbas Kiarostami’s early films flirted with self-reflexivity in the self-conscious gestures of its non-professional actors, Close-Up marked a shift in the director’s career. Here he became enduringly fascinated with the overlap between film and reality and the influence of each on the other. Where Is the Friend’s Home?, a self-contained, ambiguous moral fable, hardly merited a narrative follow-up, much less the meta-textual, real life check in of Life, and Nothing More, which tracked down cast members from the film in the wake of a devastating earthquake in the Koker region where it was shot. The context of the return built off of Close-Up’s rumination on the impact of films on fans, turning attention to the responsibility a director might feel to his own casts and crews. By contrast, Through the Olive Trees, which takes a step further back to chart the filming of Life, is more of a self-aware, self-reflexive comedy, one that attempts to see just how far Kiarostami could push this concept.
“I’m Mohamed Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director,” announces the man who informally opens the film without preamble, addressing the camera directly before giving instructions to the gathered actors. From there, much of the film drifts in and out of the everyday hassles of a film shoot: location scouting, cast-corralling and resource gathering. In an early shot looking out the windshield of a van curving along a hilly road, a member of the film crew discusses basic needs with the “director,” including items as simple as chalk for the clapboard. Throughout the film, the collection of actors proves to be an unending struggle, with various members of the crew forced to bargain and plead to get locals for even the most innocuous of background roles. Nearly everyone has some objection or other, whether it is the hassle of going down to a basin to pretend to do laundry or the ignominy that a young woman feels for being asked to wear a dress she considers hideously old-fashioned.
The minutiae of film production recorded here offers a more grounded but no less whimsical account of filmmaking that can be found in such movies as Day for Night. Kiarostami frequently spins off from the particulars of shooting to have fun with his blur of fiction and reality. In one scene, he trains the camera on an old man conversing with Keshavarz’s on-screen director, letting the man speak extemporaneously on subjects that interest him. But the documentary feel of the moment is spoiled when the man begins to laugh in a squawking voice that is then blended with the cawing of nearby geese. Elsewhere, Keshavarz gives instructions to the actor playing the director of Where Is the Friend’s Home? before the camera angle flips to suggests that the latter now directs the former. Poor Hossein (Hossein Rezai), the actor who starred in Life, and Nothing More, gets so confused by the constant oscillation between fact and fiction that in one scene where he is meant to say how many relatives his character lost in the earthquake, he inadvertently says how many he himself lost.
The experimentation of these scenes may speak to Kiarostami’s exploratory ambition, but he tethers such cerebral exercises in a core romance between Hossein and Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), whose characters sparked a relationship in Life. Hossein, an illiterate bricklayer, is smitten with Tahereh, asking her family for her hand in marriage, only to be rejected due to his low station. Despite Hossein’s lack of formal education, however, he proves more than capable of expressing himself, chiefly in car rides with Keshavarz in which the camera remains fixed from the driver’s side pointing at the young man as he speaks to the director about his frustration with the situation. He talks of going back to Tahereh’s family to try again after the earthquake leveled their town, his reasoning being that fate had made them all equals. For her part, Tahereh appears uncomfortable with the attention, though at times she gives hints of interest, and her conflicted feelings inform the scenes they shoot for Life.
Those scenes of filming become the subject of perhaps the movie’s true core: Kiarostami’s wry deconstruction of both the practical and philosophical aspects of his approach. Only a few scenes from the previous movie are shown being recorded, yet these moments drag on at length thanks to the nonprofessional actors’ awkward body language and tendency to forget lines. In one hilarious sequence, the on-screen director must repeatedly instruct Tahereh to refer to Hossein as the more formal “Mr. Hossein,” which she repeatedly fails to do given her familiarity with the real boy. After multiple takes, Hossein himself walks over to Keshavarz and gently justifies his love interest’s flubs, saying that such formal addresses are falling out of fashion with youth.
On a surface level, these scenes completely tear apart the notion of filming nonprofessionals as easy or even realistic, instead suggesting that such a method can be a far bigger headache than more polished production. But in the tension between the filmmaker’s vision and the natural lives and honest awkwardness of his ad-hoc stars reveals a deeper issue, that of the asymptotic relation that fiction and reality share with each other. If Close-Up manifested the way art can change a life and Life, and Nothing More considered how much a director owed to those who worked for him, Through the Olive Trees focuses on the pure question of the interaction between truth and a filmed truth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final shot, which pulls further and further away from its two young stars as they share an unheard exchange about Hossein’s romantic appeals, then head through an olive orchard. As the camera takes more and more of the surroundings, we understand less and less. As far as admissions of defeat go, it’s one of the warmest, most content ever put to celluloid.