Abbas Kiarostami’s understated film won the prestigious Palme d’Or Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, leading to its initial Criterion DVD release way back in 1999. After being out of print for a number of years, Criterion is finally bringing the film to Blu-ray this week with new cover art and some new special features. While its methodical pace isn’t for everyone, the film’s concept remains intriguing.
The film centers on a middle-aged man named Mr. Badii who is shown driving aimlessly around the outskirts of Tehran, taking nearly the first half hour before revealing the plot. He has dug a grave in the ground for himself and intends to overdose on sleeping pills, but is seeking an assistant to check on him the following morning to either bury him or wake him up depending on the outcome of the pills. Suicide is a big deal in Iran, so Mr. Badii’s quest to find an assistant proves to be difficult.
While the film’s concept is exceptional, its execution leaves much to be desired. There’s no logical reason for us to be subjected to nearly a half hour of Mr. Badii driving around before the plot is revealed, as a few establishing shots could have accomplished as much in a couple of minutes. We’re left wondering about his intentions as he cruises for random men, especially as he keeps driving his very nervous first candidate around for miles before revealing his unbelievable request. Almost the entire film is Mr. Badii driving along the same desolate hillside dirt roads, with so many long tracking shots of his car that I felt like I could easily navigate Tehran's fringes by its end.
Monotony aside, Kiarostami’s idea is great, as it reveals the surprisingly diverse ethnicities and religions populating Tehran as well as their differing reactions to his request. When Mr. Badii finally finds a willing participant on his third attempt, we’re ushered to an ending that is open to interpretation, followed by a bizarre coda on grainy video before the credits that shows the actual film crew and extras shooting the film, an artistic misstep that steals power from the true ambiguous ending. As a result of the weak beginning and end and seemingly endless driving shots, it’s difficult to recommend the film, but its strong central concept is worth watching for fans of Kiarostami’s distinct style.
Kiarostami loved employing non-actors in his films, using their unaffected, natural performances to make things more realistic. His lead here, Homayoun Ershadi, is clearly a professional, but the people he comes in contact with on his drive all appear to fall into the amateur category. That makes them largely forgettable, and also further establishes Ershadi as the well-deserved star of the film with his nuanced, world-weary performance.
The Blu-ray utilizes a new 4K digital restoration created from the original 35mm film negative. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. The transfer retains the film grain but otherwise appears clean with no judder, while the soundtrack exhibits no hiss or other defects. While the drab landscape of Tehran’s hilly terrain offers precious little color, its browns and yellows are superbly presented here without appearing washed out or bleeding into each other.
The bonus features include Kiarostami’s demo reel for the film, a 40-minute trial titled Project that he conducted with his son while working out the flow of his feature film. It’s fascinating to see the film in a demo form, a rare glimpse of a director’s vision from its earliest planning stages. The Blu-ray also includes an archival interview with Kiarostami from 1997, as well as new features: an interview with a film scholar, and a feature by another scholar about Kiarostami’s use of landscapes. The most revealing thing in the bonus features is the fact that the film was shot with only one actor in the car at a time, with Kiarostami himself acting as the temporary scene partner/line reader in the opposite seat.
Taste of Cherry arrives on Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 21st. For more information, visit Criterion.com.