Taste of Cherry by the Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, is not for those whose idea of movie fun is explosions and shootings, yet its concerns with matters of life and death are no less exigent for that.
Over the opening credits, Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) is cruising in his Range Rover, peering intently at knots of laborers looking for work and obviously interested in just one to do an unspecified job. We suppose that he is cruising for sex, but, as becomes gradually apparent, he is cruising for death. He is offering 200,000 tomans, which is six months’ pay for the young Kurdish soldier he first picks up for a carefully described task. He makes small talk with the soldier, fondly remembering his own military service and the way the soldiers used to count — one, two, three, four — while marching. Again he manages to suggest that he has other things in mind, but at last unfolds his true purpose to the soldier.
He takes him to a particular spot in the barren landscape of desert outside Teheran where a single tree grows. There he has dug a hole. He shows the soldier the hole and tells him to return to that spot the following morning and call his name twice, thus: “Mr Badii! Mr Badii!” Then, “if I reply, help me out [of the hole]. If not, throw in 20 spadesful of earth.” He plans to take a number of sleeping pills which may or may not be sufficient to kill him. The soldier is dubious. “You won’t be burying me alive,” Mr Badii assures him. All he has to do is throw in the dirt at 10,000 tomans a spadeful. But the soldier is frightened and runs away. Off in the distance, Mr. Badii sees a detail of soldiers quick marching to their chant of “One, two, three, four.”
Next he tries to persuade a security guard at some kind of massive earth-moving project, which is continually going on in the background of all the film’s action. The security guard says he can’t leave his post. Mr Badii is oddly frightened by the rickety looking ladder he has to climb to get up to his observation booth. Some words between the two of them are lost as we see Mr Badii — as we often do — behind a glass window pane speaking to someone inaudibly. Like the dulling and garbling of bits of conversation by the car noise, or the long shots of the earth-moving project set in the midst of the barren and featureless desert, these things suggest a separation, a presence in life but somehow an inaccessible one.
The camera keeps us focused on Mr Badii’s attempts to be heard, and we do not even see what the security guard looks like, except for a brief snapshot at the end, as Mr Badii is leaving. The guard is apologetic about not being able to go with him, but says: “it’s my duty” to stay. “We all have our responsibilities. I can’t leave my post.” Mr Badii, who can leave his post, is obviously cut off from communication with others in more ways than one. The idea of a suicide as a man somehow walled off by glass from his fellow human creatures, whom he can see but not touch or speak to, rings very true and is part of what makes the film a memorable succession of images.
Eventually, Mr Badii finds his man, who turns out to be an old taxidermist. This man agrees to do what he asks, but who keeps insisting that he “would prefer to help in another way.” This he does by telling him about his own suicide attempt when he was a young man, back in 1960. He had gone out before dawn to hang himself from a mulberry tree. But as he was securing the rope, he touched some ripe mulberries and paused to eat them. They tasted wonderful. Then the sun came up, and he heard children laughing and shouting on their way to school. Suddenly there seemed so many things to live for. “I had left to kill myself and I came back with mulberries. A mulberry changed me.”
Then he tells a joke. A Turk (you’re not Turkish are you?) goes into his doctor’s office with pains all over his body. “Every time I touch myself with my finger here,” he says, “and here and here and here, I hurt terribly.” The doctor examines him and then says: “Your body’s fine, but your finger’s broken.” Of course death is a solution, but not at first. Not when you’re young. There are so many things to live for: the sun, the moon, the stars, spring water to drink or splashed on your face in the morning. The seasons and their fruit. “You want to give up the taste of cherries?” Mr Badii does not reply, but it is clear that he does not. The film does not stint for a moment its purely cinematic representation of the world’s oppressiveness, and it ends ambiguously. But in this context it is a statement of wild optimism to allow us to see in Mr Ershadi’s wonderfully expressive face a momentary doubt about his purpose.