Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016. Though he was not as recognized in his home country as he was in the rest of the world, his body of work is considered one of the most exquisite in the history of cinema. Many authors have analyzed the layers of meaning in his films, but one of the most fascinating aspects is his use of landscape. Unlike other directors who use landscape as a backdrop for their stories or characters, Kiarostami masterfully incorporates it to not only tell a story, but also enhance it. This technique is evident throughout his career and we will explore a few examples from his extensive filmography.
Where can I find my friend’s house?
As a student named Ahmad discovers that he has mistakenly taken his best friend’s notebook, it marks the beginning of a journey for the young boy. Along the way, he grapples with concepts like guilt, maturing, and, above all, taking accountability as he searches for his friend’s home. Initially, the journey through the town and its surroundings seems to mirror the futile task of Sisyphus, but over time it becomes a transformative path for the protagonist. He starts to find his own way, trusting his instincts and forming his own opinions, which makes the landscape less labyrinthine.
A director and his son visit the town of Koker, where the filmmaker’s previous movie was set. The area has been greatly affected by a destructive earthquake, resulting in a devastated environment that is captured by the camera along with the expressions of the two main characters. While this technique has been used before, “And Life Goes On” marks the first time that Kiarostami uses people’s faces as a reflection of the damaged landscape and its history. As in “Where is the Friend’s House?”, the landscape serves as a puzzle and the starting point of a journey, while also representing a glimmer of hope for a fresh start.
Clearly still affected by the tragic events that occurred in Koker, Kiarostami returns to the region one last time for his film “Through the Olive Trees.” He once again employs a meta approach to the story, placing a director at the center of the narrative who is drawn to the region’s history and its people while also trying to film a movie there. The landscape serves as a representation of the region’s painful past, while the people show signs of slowly moving towards a brighter future, attempting to rebuild and rediscover what was lost in the aftermath of the destructive earthquake.
In the film “Taste of Cherry”, we are introduced to Mr. Badii, portrayed by Homayoun Ershadi, as he drives through Tehran and its surroundings in search of someone to help him with a task. Without giving away too much, the actor’s performance and the use of the landscape provide hints about the nature of this task from the very beginning. The bustling cityscape transitions to the isolated outskirts, emphasizing the spiritual isolation and increasing desperation of the character. Since Kiarostami was unable to complete the film, we are left with a few scenes that resemble behind-the-scenes footage often found on physical media. However, even in these remaining shots, the sunlight, soil, and nature convey a sense of hope, poetry, and beauty that makes life worth living.
In “The Wind Will Carry Us,” we follow three journalists who disguise themselves as treasure hunters and travel to a remote village to document the death of an elderly woman and her funeral. The film showcases some of Kiarostami’s most stunning visuals, with the landscape and surrounding village accentuating the growing absurdity of the situation. As the journalists become increasingly impatient, they find ways to pass the time. However, the landscape also hints at a change in perspective for at least one of them, as they renew their interest in people and the world around them.
There is a debate about Abbas Kiarostami’s level of involvement in the 2002 film “Ten,” as it technically lacks a traditional landscape. However, the limited views and sounds from outside the car, as well as the car itself being the setting for all ten scenes, provide a sense of landscape. While the characters discuss various topics like women’s roles, marriage, and sex work, the vehicle symbolizes the restrictive environment they must navigate daily.
In “Shirin,” Kiarostami takes the concept of landscape to a new level. As we observe the reactions of female audience members such as Juliette Binoche, Taraneh Alidoosti, Niki Karimi, and Mahtab Keratami, the person in front of us becomes the landscape, reflecting the emotions and actions portrayed on the movie screen. Simultaneously, we interpret, assess, and ultimately become immersed in the story that we cannot physically see, but is brought to life through the performances of each actress and the camera itself. Despite its seemingly cliché premise, “Shirin” truly captures the essence of magic and pure expression in cinema.
“Certified Copy” is the culmination of themes explored in both “Shirin” and the director’s earlier works. The film follows an author and a bookshop owner as they revisit their relationship and grapple with their respective roles and values. It delves into the complexities of romance, idealism, and the realities of life. The urban setting of the Italian village serves as a backdrop for the couple’s conversations, and also reflects the different stages of their relationship, from their first date to their first trip together. As Kiarostami often portrays in his work, places and landscapes hold memories and offer the potential for a second chance at a cherished relationship.
9. Someone in Love
Although there are numerous other purposes for landscape in Abbas Kiarostami’s extensive body of work, the final two selections in this compilation highlight intriguing explorations of different cultures and methods of expression. In “Like Someone in Love,” the city of Tokyo is portrayed as both an opaque, chaotic urban jungle full of unexpected twists and turns, and a place where the characters have lost their way. Rin Takanashi’s character, Akiko, is one of many “lost souls” who has learned to navigate this jungle and benefit from it, but has also become disconnected from her true self.
“24 Frames” is the last movie Abbas Kiarostami directed and was released posthumously in 2017. The titular 24 frames are photographs or known paintings, such as Bruegel’s “Hunter in the Snow”, and we witness the subtle changes within the frame as little by little we see movement. Nature comes to life, people move from one direction to the next and animals make sounds. It is a simple, yet effective exercise at the cinematic storytelling, asking the viewer to be both patient and observant to what is happening.