Published August 1, 2000
A great fan of Taste of Cherry, the last film by the Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, I went to his newest, The Wind Will Carry Us with high hopes. I was not disappointed. It is an even better, more engaging and interesting, work than the other, but is recognizably by the same man. In particular, its sense — without being merely glib about it as American Beauty is — of the wonder and the beauty of life, and all that is continually interfering with our appreciation of it, closely resembles that conveyed by the example of the suicidal Mr. Badii in Taste of Cherry. The hero here, however, does not know that he is blind to the miracle of his own life and is not obviously in despair. He is just preoccupied by the task in hand, as are most of us, and misses life only because his attention is diverted from it by those important trivialities that most people spend their time on.
It is clever of Kiarostami never quite to reveal what it is that brings his hero, known only as “the engineer” (Behzad Dourani), to the little Iranian mountain village of Siah Dareh. There are hints in his many cell phone conversations with a mysterious boss called Mrs Godarzi back in Teheran that it has something to do with the expected death of an aged villager called Mrs Malek. Is there some kind of legacy? Will her death somehow free up the engineer’s company to embark on a development project? Is he there to record the old-fashioned and exotic mourning ceremony of which we catch a glimpse at the end? Or is there some more sinister explanation? We are never told. The ostensible purpose of everything that is happening before our eyes, and that so preoccupies the engineer, is kept from us.
Nor is that all that we are not allowed to see. Mrs Malek never appears on screen, for instance, for all her apparent importance in the engineer’s life. Nor, for that matter, do any of the three companions who have come with him to Siah Dareh. These men are always sleeping, or taking off for somewhere else for a while. Kiarostami teases us with several scenes of the engineer shaving outside on the balcony of the house where he is staying and calling to the others inside about their plans, and the need for them to bestir themselves. But they never emerge. Occasionally he asks the villagers if they have seen his friends, and they always have. But we never do. Likewise, a local ditch-digger with whom he strikes up an acquaintance is over his head in the ditch he is digging, so we never see him either.
Thus it is that the things which loom largest in the consciousness of the hero are kept completely out of sight of the audience, while his gaze is constantly wandering from that which is constantly in sight, for us, and engaging our attention. The strangeness of the engineer’s distraction is heightened for us by the beauty of the village in its mountain setting — “Greener than the dreams of God” in the words of a poem quoted near the beginning — and the charm of its people, neither of which patently deserves to be treated as a matter of only marginal or incidental interest. The effect, rather like that of overhearing one side of a telephone conversation, is to detach us from the engineer’s conscious preoccupations, as if we were watching purposeful activity from so far away that its purpose can no longer be seen. And Kiarostami makes powerful use both of long camera perspectives and of one-sided telephone conversations.
The latter take place in a recurring comic image that only grows funnier the more times it is repeated: that of the engineer’s cell phone ringing while he is talking to a villager, or doing something else that promises to engage both his and our interest in the place where he actually is. But when the phone rings, he immediately forgets the immediate as he runs at top speed to his sport-utility vehicle and drives hell-for-leather a mile or two along a dusty road to a hilltop which is apparently the only place in the vicinity where wireless transmissions can be received. All the time as he drives with less than half his attention on the road he is shouting into his unresponsive phone: “Hold on! If you can hear me, don’t hang up! I’m going to higher ground.”
This behavior becomes even more comical when the call turns out to be from his parents and not Mrs Godarzi. “I told you not to call me,” he scolds. Then, pausing: “Well tell them you couldn’t reach me. They don’t know I’ve hired a cell phone.” Other ironies are suggested when the connections between the engineer and the only people that he seems capable of giving his full attention to — who are, so far as we are concerned, not people at all but only ideas in his head — become even more attenuated: “Did you give him my message?” he shouts into the phone in frustration. “Did you use my very words?”
Meanwhile, the engineer is building up a set of relationships with the people of the village almost in spite of himself: with the boy, Farzad, who is his guide, and on whom he takes out some of his frustrations in anger and impatience, with the pregnant woman hanging out the washing on the balcony across the way from his, with the keeper of a village tea shop, with Yossef, the ditch-digger on the hilltop outside the village — whose absence from the picture is owing to his presence in (significantly) a “communications” trench — and with Sharin, Yossef’s fiancée back in the village from whom the engineer is sent to buy milk. She, too, remains veiled and hidden from him. “Raise the lamp so I can see your face,” he says to her in the dark underground stable where she is milking her cow for him. “I haven’t seen Yossef, but at least I can know his taste.”
She does not reply, and he takes his milk away unenlightened.
The climax of the film comes as Yossef is buried alive when his ditch collapses, and the engineer, standing nearby to receive yet another phone call, rushes back to the village in his truck to raise the alarm. At this point there appears a sort of teacher-guide figure, just as there does at a similar moment in A Taste of Cherry, in the form of an itinerant physician on a motorbike. His purpose is perhaps to function as the author’s explainer, to tell us what it all means, but it is a very slightly didactic one. He merely takes the occasion of Mrs Malek’s imminent death to observe that “to close your eyes on God’s wonders means you’re never coming back.”
“They say the other world is more beautiful,” replies the engineer.
“Who has ever come back to tell us?” asks the doctor. And, quoting poetry, he tells him to “prefer the present to these fine promises; even a drum sounds melodious from afar.” The moral — like something out of Omar Khayyám rather than what we might have expected out of the latter-day, radically Islamic Persia — is a suitably understated one for this exquisite little film.