Developed in the 16th century, perfected in the early 17th with Don Quixote, the picaresque tradition helped form the foundation for novelistic satire, allowing its characters, skulking about the fringes of proper society, to more freely comment on its frivolities and excesses. Telling episodic, loosely-connected tales, these books worked in a realist vein while subverting expectations of straightforward storytelling, further sharpening the social commentary. Always pointed, often caustic, but rarely overt in their criticisms, Abbas Kiarostami’s films operate in a similar mode, portraying rootless protagonists who typify larger societal shortcomings. These movies depict movement, but it’s rarely of a forward variety, often orbiting around Tehran or the surrounding countryside. Bound to their vehicles, his drivers and passengers are brought into repeated contact with people outside, while caught up in a hectic modern dance which keeps them perpetually in motion.

Often held up as Kiarostami’s best film, 1997’s Taste of Cherry isn’t quite that, although it may be his most emblematic, playing out in such subdued fashion that it’s easy to miss how much is happening beneath the surface. Met with a mixed reception upon its release, it nevertheless won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, catapulting the Iranian director onto the international stage. Its story, expressed in its simplest form, is of a man (Homayoun Ershadi) attempting to disappear. He wants to commit suicide, but rather than flout national law or the religious dictates which undergird it, to do so quietly, in a hole he’s dug for himself far outside the city. Here he hopes to be buried by a stranger, assuring his descent into anonymity. Whether the man has a family he’s hiding this secret from or is a loner is never indicated, and the lack of such information identifies the ultimate unimportance of his motives or the reasons for his unorthodox plans. He merely wants to vanish.

This desire is simple, but nevertheless not immediately clear. At first glance the driver, whose name is eventually revealed to be Badii, seems at worst like a serial killer, scoping out a victim, at best like an uncomfortable gay man on the prowl for a pickup. This early mystery fosters an atmosphere of unease, one which pervades as Badii works his way through a trio of possible accomplices, each of them put off by his stolid demeanor and strange, potentially dangerous request. Significantly, in a choice that highlights the film’s inversion of the usual picaresque tropes, all these men are foreigners. Badii thus stands in as the lone representation of Persian culture, and his interactions with these people speaks to the influence of Iran abroad, a force that’s borne out both negative and positive outcomes.

More directly, he’s the lone representative of a country which, through its reliance upon foreign workers, international products and imported ideas, invites its own cultural erasure. Such a sense of loss is a common theme in the age of globalization, and one that in lesser hands, often comes off as racist and xenophobic. Kiarostami, however, is nothing if not subtle, and his skill at establishing the fine points of his story through the shuffling in and out of corollary characters, while leaving his protagonist as a completely mysterious blank slate, complicates this familiar narrative dynamic and adds a further air of funereal finality to the proceedings. With no idea about what is driving this man toward certain doom, there’s always little concrete way to hope that it can be avoided.

Badii’s first passenger is a Kurdistani soldier, a man who’s left his embattled region to join an army that’s historically subjugated his own people. Squirming with obvious discomfort at Badii’s request, he feebly claims he can handle a gun, but not a spade, the first of several agricultural metaphors. The second man is an Afghan seminary student, with whom the driver gets into a semantic discussion, this one religious, about the line between suicide and murder. More forceful, the Afghani makes an attempt to draw him back to the land of the living, offering a meal of eggs which Badii refuses. The final passenger, the most significant of the three, builds upon this endeavor. An Azeri, he recounts his own bungled attempt at suicide, a story which culminates with him in the branches of a mulberry tree as the sun rises, realizing the folly of his quest.

This reminder of the sweetness of life supplies the film’s title (the fruits changed to cherries in the imprecise English translation) and also the key lesson of its parable structure. Sitting up in the tree, the Azeri is brought back to life not just by his own will to live, but by a gaggle of children, who demands he toss them down some berries, a request that impels him to try them himself. The film’s lone Irani character, Badii becomes exemplary by sheer virtue of his isolation, a quality that the men he encounters attempt to remedy, if only to save him from oblivion. Even briefly-glimpsed tertiary figures not privy to the driver’s secret plan, like a security guard tasked with keeping watching over a stationary backhoe, offer lessons and encouragement. After Badii’s car rolls off the road, a crew of foreign construction workers helps him back on, in a moment that may be a callback to the climactic mountain ascent of Life, and Nothing More, or just another instance of gentle external assistance.

Yet despite all these encounters, Kiarostami never budges on his refusal to provide closure or explanation for the character, a condition that seems purposefully reflective of the proud, rigid external face kept up by his troubled nation. There are hints, however, that Badii will go through with his plan. In a scene that illustrates and mirrors the Azeri’s pre-dawn realization, the film caps off with a dazzling sunset, which then segues into a tremendous cloudburst, a merciful outpouring of water upon the movie’s succession of sun-baked landscapes. This is followed by a long final shot of Badii in what appears likely to become his grave, prone on his back as water pools in the muddy ground around him.

Taste of Cherry of course doesn’t end here, pivoting off to a controversial postscript that, to many, seems like a bit of pointless meta-textual rug-pulling. Like everything Kiarostami put to screen, it’s not quite that simple; the final reveal is not a distancing effect, but a summary, both underscoring and complicating everything that’s come before. As a New Orleans death march (the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues” ) plays, we see Kiarostami and crew working together to capture a final shot, as visual themes from each of the film’s episodes are reprised, the confirmation of Badii’s death permanently forestalled. This man, so convinced of his utter seclusion that he sought to confirm by retreating anonymously into the earth, was in fact the furthest thing from alone. It’s a move that adds a spark of levity while not diminishing the difficult story that preceded it, another reminder of the ever-present possibility of connection that further accentuates the deep, intense pain of isolation.

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