The morning after watching Abbas Kiarostami's “Taste of Cherry”, the 1998 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, highly recommended by several of my most esteemed colleagues out here in the blogosphere, I hit up Rotten Tomatoes. I assure you this was not to check its Tomatometer score, which I don’t remember (or care about), but to indulge in a few reviews to perhaps assist myself in coming to terms with what I had seen. But trusty RT, as its wont, includes a snippet of dialogue from each review and the snippets from the less favorable reviews immediately caught my eye.
Dan Jardine of Apollo Guide writes: “The lack of information about the central character, which results in a distinct absence of emotional connection, leaves us cold to his fate.” Ed Scheid of Boxoffice Magazine writes: “…the screenplay does not give the character enough personal details to make him compelling.” Oh jeez, I see where this is going. I consulted the review of the late, great Roger Ebert, who did not care for the film. He writes: “If we're to feel sympathy for Badhi, wouldn't it help to know more about him? To know, in fact, anything at all about him?”
At the risk of delving into a tangent, this has become, to me, one of the most irritating and redundant aspects of film criticism – this notion of disliking a film by wondering “Why do we care about this person?” Or: the more demonstrative “I just didn’t care about this person.”
Care is an extension of Sympathy and, for the life of me, I have no idea why every character we encounter on a movie screen needs to be Sympathetic. Can’t a character still be intriguing and/or fascinating sans sympathy? Wasn’t Hitler Man of the Year in 1938? Whoops! Bad example! Nothing to see here! Please disperse!
“Taste of Cherry” is slow and morose and unrevealing, but rewarding of patience, an open mind and a desire to get a little philosophical. I confess, I was not entirely with it for the first 15, 20 minutes. This prelude, so to speak, is shot almost entirely from within the interior of the car of Badii (Homayon Ershadi) as it lopes around the hilly countryside outside Tehran where he is trying to, well, someone to do something.
The specific purpose is revealed gradually, perhaps monotonously, after Badii offers a ride to a young soldier hiking back to his barracks after a weekend leave.
Badii has dug a hole high up on a not-terribly scenic hill. He plans to ingest all his sleeping pills and lay down in the hole. He wants someone to check on the hole in the morning and, if Badii is no longer breathing, shovel dirt on top of him. For this, the dirt-shoveler will be paid handsomely.
As you might expect, no one wants to help. Not the young soldier, not the seminary student. At last, an old taxidermist says he will, but, even then, he spins a yarn of his own brush with suicide and why he refrained. He refrained, he explains, because he would so dearly miss the taste of cherries.
Well, we see what’s happening here. It does not matter one little bit that the soldier and seminary student and taxidermist have a “lack of information about the central character”, that they are ignorant of his “personal details”, that they (and we) do not know “anything at all about him.” They urge Badii not to commit suicide and they do so because they care about him and they care about him because, well, he’s a fellow human being.
Isn’t that the most complete artistic humanist statement a filmmaker could possibly make?