(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
Taste of Cherry starts slow, with a man driving around in circles, stopping every now and then to talk to people on the street. After the title card, he gives a lift to a young soldier walking back to his barracks. They talk. Badii, the driver, has a job offer. The soldier insists he needs to be back before six o’clock. At the twenty-three minute mark, the film’s story finally shifts into focus: Badii is going to kill himself, and he wants the soldier to bury him. This opening feels strangely protracted, and it will take longer still for the film’s themes to cohere. The most fascinating and frustrating elements of Abbas Kiarostami’s film are its elusiveness.
Taste of Cherry is comprised almost entirely of conversations between Badii and the passengers in his vehicle, and yet despite its small scale and straightforward plot, the film continually transforms itself, expanding and unfolding in surprising ways, all the way up to its confounding conclusion. It is a difficult but extremely rewarding experience to unravel.
To unpack the film, I find it necessary to start at the end, the most surprising and perplexing part of the whole story. After talking to the soldier and a seminarian, Badii finally meets Bagheri, who accepts the job offer. And so Badii digs a hole and crawls into it and… dies? The narrative stops here, leaving Badii in his potential grave, closing his eyes as lightning irregularly illuminates the scene. The film is suspended in darkness for a brief time and then interrupted by the sound of marching soldiers, the darkness lifting to reveal… the morning after? The scenery has markedly changed, and the film appears to no longer be film at all, but video, a startling change in image quality. A cameraman walks into view, and Badii—that is to say, Homayoun Ershadi, who plays Badii—hands Kiarostami a cigarette. Taste of Cherry is suddenly its own behind-the-scenes documentary. Kiarostami is directing the group of soldiers, seen earlier in the film, and orders them to rest under a tree. He says the shoot is now over. The credits roll.
What’s going on here? Kiarostami’s film begs many questions, not least because of how little information he shares. For example, why does Badii want to kill himself? Does he suffer from depression? Is he terminally ill? We never find out. Importantly, the film never judges Badii; by refusing to moralize, or offer easy answers, Kiarostami avoids reducing suicide to easily digestible platitudes and situates it in a broader philosophical dialogue. Kiarostami carves out a cinematic space for audiences to engage with the subject themselves, or more directly, alongside him. Taste of Cherry, to put it another way, is a purposely unfinished, or unresolved, text. Kiarostami is waiting for someone to come along and build the rest of it. The film is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one. In this light, the ending starts to make sense.
Badii first discusses the topic of suicide with the seminarian. He says he cannot tell him why he has decided to kill himself, and that it wouldn’t help and he wouldn’t understand. More accurately, the seminarian could understand, but he could never feel what Badii feels. He could sympathize and show passion but could never actually feel Badii’s pain. This is one of the key moments of the film. It is a brief moment, and the only one where Badii looks like he might crack, emotionally, but the conversation immediately turns intellectual, as the seminarian tries to argue religious ethics. The conversation continues on in this way. There is a deliberate lack of emotional connection, and the discussion goes nowhere.
Taste of Cherry is about the people Badii meets, as much as Badii himself. Bagheri, the man who finally agrees to help Badii, tries to make him understand that what he asks is incredibly difficult. It is difficult to understand Badii and his request, and to discuss suicide. Every encounter in the film, as such, is characterized by a fundamental lack. This lack is most clearly demonstrated by the way Kiarostami shot each conversation, recording every actor separately and editing them together in post. The actors never directly interact with each other on set, and every conversation is therefore the product of movie magic, a trick of the mind. This suggests how Badii is fundamentally out of step with the world around him. Even in his desire to die, Badii must reach out to other people, but the connections are imperfect or incomplete. This also reveals a broader truth about our relationships with each other, a limitation inherent in our own experiences of understanding. Our connections will always be imperfect or incomplete. Nobody can truly understand the suffering of another or feel the pain another person feels. We cannot be another person, only ourselves; we have access only to our own experiences. Everybody suffers alone. Everybody dies alone.
The decision to end the narrative right as Badii settles into the hole and closes his eyes allows for ambiguity: does he actually die, or does he get up the next day when Bagheri arrives? My instinctive reaction is we are watching Badii’s final moments, and the movie literally collapses here because it is not possible to follow Badii beyond this point. We cannot hope to understand Badii’s suffering or his decision to kill himself; as the logical endpoint, we cannot hope to understand death. Taste of Cherry tackles concepts that are impossible to visualize on screen. Kiarostami somehow tries to grapple with them, nevertheless, finally exploring the limitations of his own art. This is where the film’s ending reveals its narrative purpose.
Watching the final scene, I was immediately reminded of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arguing about death with the Player, in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They chide the Player and his actors, who pride themselves on dying well on stage, saying they cannot “act” death because they cannot experience it. And when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet their end, the stage is completely dark, revealing only the two actors. They contemplate their end and then simply walk off the stage. When the lights return, we are suddenly watching the final scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the source of the play’s inspiration. And so it is with Taste of Cherry, with Badii alone in his grave, at the end, submerged in darkness before the film reveals its meta conclusion. As Guildenstern says, the fact of death has nothing to do with seeing it happen. Death is just disappearing, or failing to reappear. Now you see him, now you don’t.
Stoppard’s play explores the limitation of the stage, the ability to perform or convey an experience as inscrutable as death, and so too does Kiarostami explore the limitation of cinema. And just as Stoppard’s play collapses back into Hamlet, Kiarostami’s film collapses into images of its own production. The ending is an invitation to participate in the construction of the text. Kiarostami’s decision to withhold important narrative information, whether it’s Badii’s backstory or even the resolution of the plot itself, is a gesture of generosity. Kiarostami uses his art to reach a larger audience and engage in a dialogue. He needs the audience, and their imagination, to overcome the cinema’s limitations. And unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Badii—or the actor playing Badii—reappears. Taste of Cherry is not about death, but life, and for Kiarostami, limitations are opportunities.
Ultimately, Taste of Cherry explores the ways we engage with the world by following a man who no longer wishes to be part of it. And as Badii/Ershadi returns to the crew, and passes Kiarostami a cigarette, the film is urging us not to follow Badii, but to live. The film ends on this note, with images of people gathered together in the same frame, to remind us of what we have, the relationships we share with each other and the world around us. By exploring the limitations inherent in our own experiences and understanding, and in cinema, Kiarostami also explodes their possibilities. In this way, Taste of Cherry is a powerful, optimistic and humanist film. By confronting these limitations, we understand how much we truly need each other, and the role art plays in multiplying perspectives and connections. Taste of Cherry urges us to breathe the world in and savor it. And so the film’s crew gathers on a hill, while the soldiers relax under a tree. Kiarostami chooses life, and the company of others, and the taste of cigarettes.