Nothing naive about sticking it to the mullahs

The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami
December 16, 2005

From time to time a director from one of the less celebrated film-making countries will suddenly find himself - or, very rarely, herself - elevated to the pantheon of cinematic greats and spoken of with awe and reverence. Sometimes this elevation proves fully justified, as with Kenji Mizoguchi and Satyajit Ray; sometimes the renown tarnishes as the years pass, as with Miklós Jancsó and Andrei Tarkovsky; and sometimes the bubble of reputation bursts with farcical immediacy (think John Woo). Currently, Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami is a prominent beneficiary of adulation, and I cannot help wondering whether, for all his work's intelligence, beauty, compassion and eye for detail, he is not a touch over-hyped.

Even before opening this volume, it is evident that such considerations are not likely to be addressed within. Alberto Elena's book bears on its cover a quotation from Jean-Luc Godard: "Film begins with D. W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami." Godard, of course, has long been notorious for such coat-trailingly arrogant dicta ("The cinema is Nicholas Ray" was one of his most famously loopy pronouncements). But the mere fact that Elena - or maybe his publishers - chose it for the cover suggests that scepticism is going to be in short supply.

And so it proves. The author, who has seen nearly everything Kiarostami has made, including early shorts for Kanun (the government-funded Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) under the Shah's regime, can scarcely bring himself to acknowledge tiny faults in tyro efforts. As for the mature features, adverse criticisms are quoted but only to show how imperceptive their authors were.

To be fair, Elena tells us in his introduction that his book "is not - and was never intended to be - neutral and detached". Taken purely as a thorough, well-researched and informative monograph by an unstinting admirer, this is by some way the best English-language account of Kiarostami's work to appear so far, with Belinda Coombes providing an idiomatic and readable translation from the original Spanish.

Elena has no truck with reviewers who believe that Kiarostami is an "apolitical" director because he made films about children, evidently on the assumption that Iranians are naive primitives who would not recognise an allegory if they saw one. (In much the same way, Western critics who had seen Pather Panchali continued for years to write about Satyajit Ray as though he were a simple Bengali peasant.)

In Where is the Friend's House?, the film that gave Kiarostami his international breakthrough in 1989, a young boy desperately tries to return a classmate's exercise book taken in error, since he knows his friend may get into trouble. With few exceptions, adults ignore his explanations and requests for help, set on seeing him as a ne'er-do-well. His grandfather sends the boy to buy cigarettes even though he still has some, merely to "teach him manners and obedience". What, asks a neighbour, if the lad is well behaved? "Well then," retorts the old man, "I'll find a good reason to give him a thrashing every fortnight." Hard to miss the parallels with an Iran dominated by authoritarian mullahs.

Kiarostami tells this story, as ever, with a simplicity of technique that masks a sophistication of purpose. In Through the Olive Trees , the third in his "Koker Trilogy", of which Friend's House was the first (all three shot in the same remote upcountry village), we see an actor playing "Kiarostami" directing a scene from the second film in the trio, Life and Nothing More . This postmodernist film-within-a-film device recurs throughout Kiarostami's work and, as Elena points out, taps into Iranian cinema's "tradition of reflexivity", itself a well-established convention in classic Farsi literature.

Throughout this book we are reminded of Kiarostami's affection for his cultural inheritance. Like his colleague Mohsen Makhmalbaf - and virtually every present-day Iranian film-maker of talent - he has been stigmatised by the current regime as "un-Iranian". Yet as Elena makes clear, his films constantly evoke the great sweep of Persian literature that reaches back from the late Sohrab Sepehri to Hafiz and beyond. Kiarostami may not always retain his current stature among the world's foremost directors. But he is indubitably one of Iran's finest film-makers, and his films will survive long after those who now denounce them are forgotten.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian, and teaches film journalism at Leicester University.

The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami

Author - Alberto Elena
Publisher - Saqi Books,
Pages - 297
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 86356 594 8

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