Cinephiles love to talk about the thrill of ‘pure cinema’ – the jolting joy of the spectacle that only the medium of film can give us. Some find it in Alfred Hitchcock, others in Andy Warhol. I found it in the last place I expected it to be: in the difference, the transition between the two final scenes in the Iranian film Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997). It is a film about – above all else – endings.
Its premise is unusual: a man, Badii (Homayon Ershadi), seeks to die, to kill himself. But he cannot do it alone; he needs help, and so he asks virtually everyone he meets to assist him. The movie is the record of his chance encounters, as he drives around streets and work sites of Tehran: one person tries to talk him out of it, reasonably; another flees in panic, perhaps suspecting a gay pick-up. Finally, Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), who needs the money, agrees to fill up the already-dug grave, if there is a deceased Badii in it, the following morning. So far, the film is already remarkable: both obsessive and patient in its slow, steady, accumulating minimalism, and in its threading together of the random and the fated, the contingent and the destined.
Eventually, we arrive at a scene that does not really survive the transition to VHS or DVD, a scene that must be seen in a giant, darkened cinema. As Badii lies in his desolate hole, flashes of lightning punctuate the total blackout of night – and illuminate the movie theatre, too. The sound of the thunder rumbles our seats and our souls. With its unbearably poignant mystery of this man’s destiny, the scene takes us close to an absolute experience of existential negation – more powerfully than any horror movie. It is an ultimate experience of the very limit between life and death, which only cinema could evoke in this precise way.
Then Taste of Cherry breaks off and leaps to yet another level. We pass, in a cut, to the airy lightness of a lo-fi video. We see the director, the crew, passing soldiers, fields. Louis Armstrong’s ‘St. James Infirmary’ fills the soundtrack. It is not a Brechtian effect, no mere unmasking of the illusion of fictional film. It is, in fact, a breathtaking transition from one level of reality to another – one in which life, mundane and beautiful, is still possible, a world in which the taste of cherry remains something extremely wondrous.
And, once it hits this plateau, the movie just floats, with no deadline on its mind – like Serge Gainsbourg said of love, the pleasant life-force here lasts simply ‘to the end of the song’. The last concern of so many films – death, apocalypse, catastrophe – becomes, for Taste of Cherry, a cheerful shrug: the least of its concerns.