Kiarostami’s best films are more than just experiments, and despite this slight-seeming work, the director still had a few triumphs left in him.
Abbas Kiarostami was a master of long takes. The closing shot of Life, and Nothing More…, for instance, told a moving and powerful story as the camera recorded, from a distance, a vast landscape dwarfing a little car struggling to ascend a mountain road. Like other directors, Kiarostami saw the development of digital video as a new tool with new possibilities for cinema. What early DV lacked in resolution and tonal range, it made up for in versatility as a highly portable device that made it possible for longer and longer takes, limited only by a camera’s storage capabilities. In Ten, the director used DV to expand on his career-long fixation on car-mounted shots. His next film took further advantage of the new technology, with mixed results.
Originally titled Five Long Takes by Abbas Kiarostami, the project came about when the director was staying at a house in Northern Iran that overlooked the Caspian Sea. During this visit, he made a series of long takes with his digital video camera and assembled five of them for a video installation that ran at a 2003 retrospective of his films in Turin. Kiarostami later decided to present the film theatrically, though his initial impulse to create an art installation may have been better suited to the project. ( In 2013, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which specializes in Asian and Middle Eastern art and curates an annual Iranian Film festival, perhaps confirmed this, presenting Five as an art installation.)
The history of the film suggests an almost arbitrary search for context. Contributing to a centenary tribute to director Yasujirō Ozu, Kiarostami happily changed the film’s title to Five Dedicated to Ozu, and while the generally quiet nature of the long takes bears some resemblance to Ozu’s spirit, this kind of meditative long take wasn’t particularly characteristic of the Japanese director. The Five Long Takes were in a sense expansions of what were known as Ozu’s pillow shots, those brief between-scene shots (of a line of kites in Early Summer, or a clothesline in Good Morning) that gently establish setting and tone.
Five begins with a nearly 10-minute shot of a piece of driftwood on the shore, the rising tide threatening to drag it out to sea. The modestly persistent pull of nature creates what tension there is in the scene, though to call it a drama of nature, as some have suggested, may be a stretch. The film’s remaining shots are variations on the beach: a static shot of the boardwalk, which to some extend affords the pleasure of people watching (fellow director Jafar Panahi, who is credited in the film, is one of the boardwalk flâneurs). But if anything, this parade of humans is even less dramatic than the driftwood, which may be what Kiarostami was getting at.
After another extended shot of the shore, with distant dogs lounging on the beach, comes the film’s whimsical highlight: a long shot of the shore, but with ducks! A nearly constant procession of ducks, waddling this way and then the other way. The film’s final sequence opens in near darkness, the lens trained on the intermittent reflection of moonlight on the surface of the sea as frogs and other nocturnal creatures create a menacing din that is eventually silenced by a rainstorm.
While Five seems to eschew dramatic structure, what develops is the varying responses to its natural setting. The film turns from a meditative if not quite soothing observation of the sea to an unremarkable parade of humanity and an almost abstract seascape before shifting to delightful ducks and finally to something unsettling. But other than those adorable ducks, it’s perhaps something that’s more fun to think about than to watch. Kiarostami’s best films are more than just experiments, and despite this slight-seeming work, the director still had a few triumphs left in him.