The Cinema Of Abbas Kiarostami
Alberto Elena (Translation: Belinda Coombes)
SAQI and Iran Heritage Foundation, 2005
“Film begins with D. W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami”
– Jean-Luc Godard
Thus reads the cover of Alberto Elena’s book “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami”, one of the very few books available in English on the works of the Iranian auteur (the only other renowned book is by Jonathan Rosenbaum which is rebuked by some scholars, according to this book). Before anything, I have to say that the book succeeds right away – by giving an update to the film world about the status of those elusive early Kiarostami films that seem to visit certain festivals now and then. I’m not sure if this is one of the best books on an Asian director, but I can testify that this is one of the most well researched books that I’ve read. To get a measure of what I’m saying, consider this: more than a third of the book is dedicated to foot notes, references and bibliography! Mr. Elena meticulously grounds his arguments and theories on numerous articles, theses, interviews and other books, hence developing an unchallengeable set of inferences and managing never to be speculative – an achievement indeed.
Mr. Elena explores Kiarostami’s films in ways that the western critics have seldom cared for. He carefully avoids (and sometimes criticizes) the terms the west uses to describe Kiarostami’s films – humanist, neo-realist, experimental, artistic and universal, to name a few. He takes a stance against the filtering of these movies using western norms and theories. Not once is a comparison to a western filmmaker made or a movement or technique from Europe recalled to elucidate analyses. Mr. Elena emphasizes Kiarostami’s desire to engage the audience in order to complete his films without ever reminding us of similar works of European filmmakers (Bertolt Brecht is not even mentioned in this context). He regards Kiarostami as a truly “Iranian” filmmaker with genuine social and political concerns. In order to justify his position, Mr. Elena refers to a plethora of native Iranian critics who have very aptly pointed out the influence of various facets of classical Persian art on Kiarostami’s works.
This, precisely, is the biggest strength of the book and a critical value-add as far as literature on Kiarostami is concerned. Mr. Elena resorts to Persian poetry – both classical and modern – and demonstrates regularly how Kiarostami’s work is closer to poetry – especially the overtly visual haikus – than any other form of art. He takes examples from Jalaluddin Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Hafez to illustrate Kiarostami’s preoccupations with the illusory nature of everyday reality and the inevitability and the possibilities of death. With the same conviction, he also establishes the influence of the modernists (the new poetry movement of Iran) – Forugh Farrokhzad and Sohrab Sepehri in poetry, Amir Naderi in film and Sadegh Hedayat in literature – on his own films and poetry. Additionally, Mr. Elena draws parallels between Kiarostami’s use of “human figures” and the Persian miniature painting.
But the most rewarding aspect of Mr. Elena’s linking of Kiarostami’s works to the Persian art is his illumination of the Sufi themes in the director’s works. Always (and quite naturally) overlooked in the discussion of the films, the Sufi influence is what makes Kiarostami films very “Iranian”. The emphasis that Sufism places on journeys – inner and physical – evidently finds its way into many of Kiarostami’s films. Kiarostami’s protagonists are almost always seen traveling in cars but what is more important is the metaphysical journey that they subconsciously embark on. Mr. Elena analyzes the various elements of the “Sufi journey” such as the presence of an omniscient Pir (guide) and closeness of man to nature and to the present that are present in some form in the director’s films. This way, he places in perspective even the most obscure and taken-for-granted components that define these works.
As an added bonus but also an ineluctable facet while charting Kiarostami’s career, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami examines the political situations in Iran right from the Shah’s oppressive rule, through the Islamic regime that had its own shortcomings, to the relatively liberal yet largely unsatisfactory Khatami democracy. Mr. Elena describes how Kiarostami’s prosperous years at the Kanun (the Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) were actually safer from the supply-demand rules of the movie industry and the excessively stringent and often absurd rules of the censor. And more importantly, he studies how Kiarostami’s films have always been conscious of their society and the politics that governs it. Albeit their cheeky and subversive form, Kiarostami’s films, as Mr. Elena points out, have always reflected the politics of contemporary Iran, be it the economic downturn in the pre-revolutionary period as in The Traveller (1974), the educational and domestic structure of the country as in Homework (1989) or the women’s issue in Ten (2002).
However, like a lot of “definitive” books that are hurt by partiality and pace, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami too suffers from abruptness towards the end. Mr. Elena devotes a large chunk of the book for the director’s early short films and medium length features. In fact, a lot of matter-of-fact readings of the films by western critics could have been completely done away with by Mr. Elena, for all these seem to be products of hindsight and over-analysis. The “Koker trilogy” and The Taste of Cherry (1997), too, are discussed in considerable detail and with formidable authority. But from what may be Kiarostami’s most enigmatic and critical film, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the book slides downhill. Once the analysis of The Wind Carry Us is hastily completed, Mr. Elena wraps up Kiarostami’s subsequent features – ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003) and 10 On Ten (2004) – are wrapped up within a few pages in spite of the fertility of the films. Perhaps be Mr. Elena thought that from these films onwards, there are enough printed materials elsewhere for the readers to refer to (The original Spanish version was printed in 2002).
P.S.: Here is a gargantuan review of the book at Senses of Cinema (which is even bigger than the director’s bio page at their site) that deserves a review of its own!