What is the most difficult thing for an artist? Among other things, the portrayal of reality. The human condition is extremely complex and it serves the purpose of a dilettante to get attention of amateur audience by a grotesque oversimplification of this highly intricate reality. The tragedy of modern cinema is that it has panoply of entertainers but a malignant dearth of humanist artists.
Oscar Wilde has portrayed the highly visible nature of beauty and reality in his celebrated philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In a moving conversation between Lord Henry and Dorian Gray, Wilde asserts that 'It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.' Abbas Kiarostami, whose subtly enigmatic films play brilliantly with audiences' preconceptions, was a master of these visible appearances of human lives. He offered a cinematic cure to the millennial poisoning of human minds with just too much symbolism and hidden meanings. Text and not the subtext is the subject of his cinema. To paraphrase Hamid Dabashi, hardly anything in Kiarostami is symbolic—everything explosive in his cinema appears on the surface of things. His peerless cinematic style and the finesse in story narration make him the primus inter pares in the Iranian new wave cinema that include critically acclaimed filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Asghar Farhadi and others.
This brilliant Iranian auteur, considered as one of the greatest directors of contemporary cinema, passed away this summer in Paris. He left behind a treasure of cinematic originality in films that include Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987), Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) and experimental movies like Ten (2002), Five (2003), Shirin (2008) among others. Though his films are multilayered, complex and highly original, there are certain overarching themes. The two central realities of human existence, life and death, are highly visible in all his works. In Koker trilogy, centred on the devastating 1990 earthquake in northern Iran, the theme of preciousness of life is ubiquitous. While conveying an instinctual thirst for survival, these three films are simultaneously very natural, anodynic and highly stylised. Although open ended, these films leave the audience with a sense of emotional completeness. This is unlike his highly acclaimed masterpiece The Taste of Cherry (1997), the winner of coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes, which is centred on the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It presents life as it is—depressing and pessimistic while also pleasurable and full of optimism. The ironic yet delightful ending of this film, based on the protagonist's desire for suicide, is a lucid message that life is not a cul de sac. Jonathan Rosenbaum, the eminent film critic, is right in saying that the film's finale is a rich tribute to life in all its manifestation and complexity.
In retrospect, one can easily recognise that as he grew older, his films got sadder. His two last films, Certified Copy(2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012), both shot outside Iran, are the saddest, least sanguine and 'curiously unfinished' works. Kiarostami's earlier resistance to leave Iran for the fear that it might adversely affect his art is prophetically visible. The early balance of the Apollonian and the Dionysian spirit in his cinema seems undermined to a certain point. The sadness is a corollary to the physical and mental exile from a country that nourished him and his art.
Unarguably, an artist is the product of his times whose art is born of a confluence of his temperament and circumstances. He uses his temperament to create a unique style to understand, interpret and represent these circumstances in his art. Kiarostami created a realist cinema represented through parables that didn't render up their meanings easily. His cinema is often about the innocent world of children, perhaps deliberately developed to circumvent state censorship on adult movies in Iran. Yet he crafts his stories with a fierce intrepidity and superb craft. In his 1987 film Where Is the Friend's Home, he uses the fretful odyssey of its child protagonist Ahmed to find his classmate to reveal how cruel and ignorant an adult's world can be from a child's perspective. This is the first of what the film cognoscenti call Kiarostamiesque cinema—sparse plot line, balanced combination of documentary and fiction, use of the 'child trope', a unique cinematic language that is poetic, allegorical and yet realistic. The film won him the FIPRESCI prize in 1989.
Throughout his life he loathed, unlike his counterparts at Hollywood, the cinematic creation of an illusionary vacuous world that uses fantasy to satisfy the audiences' desires. The problem with fantasy is that its very nature begets more fantasy. The real world, with all its problems, meaninglessness and absurdity has a hint of originality all along. And this originality, devoid of unscrupulous and sanctimonious fantasy, is ingrained in the very fabric of reality. The purpose of an artist is to represent and interpret this reality through timeless art and not to destroy it. This is where Kiarostami is indispensable as a film maker. As a master of cinematic poetry he used it to depict the realities of life with unique originality.
The legendary French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard once exclaimed that Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami. Godard is still alive to see that his predicted end is already here.
(The Author is faculty at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)