THE WIND WILL CARRY US

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Written by Kiarostami, based on an idea by Mahmoud Agedin

With Behzad Dourani

Distributed by New Yorker Films

***


As I was leaving the upscale Upper West Side theater showing THE WIND WILL CARRY US, I overheard a couple complain that Kiarostami's sky-high reputation had led them astray. They expected something "less weird",  closer to Majid Majidi's THE COLOR OF PARADISE, the most popular Iranian film released in the U.S. so far.  Ironically, Kiarostami's 1989 WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOME?, which proved to be his breakthrough in the West, has become the template for an arthouse-lite subgenre: watered-down neo-realism about cute kids, exemplified by THE CUP and the hackwork of  Majidi's COLOR and CHILDREN OF HEAVEN. If WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOME? recalled early de Sica or Satyajit Ray,  THE WIND WILL CARRY US is closer to Tarkovsky. As Kiarostami's international reputation has  surpassed that of almost any other director of his generation, he's taken this as a license to experiment, most of which involves playing around with his own tropes. Self-indulgence is a common complaint launched against "difficult" work  by middlebrow critics and spectators, but if one doesn't take it entirely as a value judgment, I think it's an accurate description of this film.

The  July/August FILM COMMENT cover trumpets David Sterritt's Kiarostami interview with the headline "Storytelling is finished." For all its glibness, this tag really does fit THE WIND WILL CARRY US, whose narrative is too minimal to warrant my customary paragraph outline. A man referred to only as the Engineer (Dourani) comes to a village at the bottom of a valley, fascinated with the forthcoming (or so he hopes) death of a 100-year-old woman. He's arrived on a journey whose purpose he never explicitly states, but given his references to working in "telecommunications" and the mysterious (film?) crew with whom he works, one can easily assume that he has arrived to film her death and the ritual surrounding it.

While THE WIND WILL CARRY US is  far gentler than Kiarostami rival Mohsen Makhmalbaf's SALAAM CINEMA, a biting documentary about actors' auditions that portrays Makhmalbaf as a petty sadist, its perspective on image-making isn't much kinder.  Until now, the onscreen "Kiarostami", played by actors in AND LIFE GOES ON and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES and by himself in CLOSE-UP and the documentary HOMEWORK, has been a rather benevolent,  paternal observer. The Engineer, who has (literally) descended from on high into a village to milk its tragedy for exotic local color, is a much darker figure. Although never shown using a movie camera,  he proves his boorishness by taking a photo of an arguing couple without their permission. Constantly shooting from high angles  directly representing the Engineer's point of view,  Kiarostami goes out of his way to implicate both himself and the audience in his voyeurism. If this is a self-portrait, it's hardly a flattering one.

In the FILM COMMENT interview, Kiarostami declares that "people do have different ideas, and my wish is that viewers should not all complete the film in their minds in the same way...I leave them {narrative ellipses} blank so people can fill them in according to how they think and what they want." Paradoxically,
while he insists on the importance of letting spectators come up with their own interpretations, few directors' work is as amenable to auteurist analysis. His recent work has been quite  stylistically consistent, with its screenplays structured around a quest that usually ends before reaching its goal and immaculate framing of landscapes in long shots, often reducing people or cars within the frame to tiny dots. The final shots of AND LIFE GOES ON and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES pull back in order to provide  a wider, more cosmic perspective, while  the endless scenery of Teheran's uglier outskirts in TASTE OF CHERRY may represent its suicidal protagonist's mental state, as well as a real place. THE WIND WILL CARRY US brings the spiritual implications hinted at in these films to the forefront, but it does so at the expense of the director's much-lauded humanism.  In fact, the first 90 minutes of WIND have far more to say about landscapes than people.

During the shooting of TASTE OF CHERRY, actor Homayoun Ershadi never met  the actors who played the passengers that try to talk him out of suicide. There, Kiarostami found visual correlations for his character's alienation by  alternating rigorously between extreme long shots and close-ups that isolate each character in a separate space. THE WIND WILL CARRY US tries to do much the same by relegating much  of its cast to offscreen voices. The Engineer remains immensely detached from them, and the audience remains even more detached from him or them. (We don't get to see enough of their lives to respond to them as full-fledged characters, while the Engineer's motives and exact goal remain opaque to the end.) In a wonderful bit of symbolism, the Engineer's cell phone only gets decent reception when he drives up out of the village to a cemetery.

If Kiarostami has become a narrative minimalist, his frames overflow with human and animal life and gorgeous landscapes. (So much information is packed into the frame that I'm surprised he didn't shoot THE WIND WILL CARRY US in 'Scope.) The world  around the Engineer is far more interesting than most of his actions, yet its beauty seems utterly disconnected from the characters. I recognize that this is  exactly the point, but  it's still frustrating, especially since the Engineer's inevitable  baby steps towards  compassion  and away from pure voyeurism feel rather schematic and  unconvincing. When a doctor  tells him that a man who's closed to natural beauty  may as well be dead, his words would seem like  facile platitudes if Kiarostami didn't accompany them with utterly luscious images. Both beauty and mortality are  everywhere in THE WIND WILL CARRY US, but the vast range of experience in between never quite comes across.  Fittingly, the most touching scene is the finale, in which people are completely absent, although symbols of death aren't.

When I first saw THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES and CLOSE-UP 5 years ago, I was most taken with their blend of  simplicity and sophistication and ability to focus on the quotidian while retaining  larger philosophical ambitions. The sophistication of Kiarostami's work  has only increased, but the simplicity, which may have been key to his accomplishments, has begun to drain away. TASTE OF CHERRY described a desperately lonely man, but the coldness and distance of THE WIND WILL CARRY US make it seem like a film made by one. It's too early to judge if THE WIND WILL CARRY US represents a dead end or the start of a new direction, but its best scenes point far away from narrative and character.  Still, it's a relief that canonization  hasn't left the director complacent.  I'd rather see him experiment, even if the result is only a partial success, and leave the WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOME? knock-offs to Majidi and company.