The Wind Will Carry Us Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Poetry and Sufism. Both are useful coordinates for anyone trying to get a fix on the intent behind The Wind Will Carry Us, a gorgeous, semiopaque film that left me with a uniquely split reaction when I saw its premiere at last year's Venice Film Festival. Usually if I say I'm divided about a film, it means that I love, say, 70 percent of it and have qualms about 30 percent. Watching The Wind Will Carry Us as someone who prizes Kiarostami's past work, though, I felt nothing less than 100-percent astonished pleasure at the familiar-yet-new fictional world it created. Yet, after leaving the theater and imagining the reaction of someone who was a stranger to that distinctive world, I envisioned an entirely different reaction?100-percent bemused, bored or irritated bafflement.
In one sense, that split can be simply explained. A decade ago, the name Kiarostami was unknown to U.S. filmgoers. At the end of last year, the Iranian was voted the most important filmmaker of the 1990s in a Film Comment poll of critics and programmers. Granted that superlative, one might think a great new film by Kiarostami could be recommended without hesitation to any serious cinephile. Yet I do hesitate, for a reason that gets a bit more serious with each new film. His renown is based on six features (not counting two documentaries) that he made, beginning in the mid-80s. Of these only the first two, Where Is the Friend's House? (1987) and Close-Up (1990), are truly self-explanatory and require no introduction. Thereafter, in ways obvious and not, every film is premised on the work or works that came before it.
No, I know it's not impossible for someone to like or even be totally knocked out by, say, Taste of Cherry (1997) if they haven't seen the previous films. But I also know that critics and filmgoers who have encountered the more accessible films first, and then followed Kiarostami's progress from there, are far more likely to embrace the newer work enthusiastically, while noninitiates or latecomers are usually the ones complaining they're bored or drastically underwhelmed by the latest Kiarostami.
All of this is by way of saying that, if you want to derive the maximum from The Wind Will Carry Us, you're well advised to see the earlier films too. And if you're up for that, fortune smiles: Starting this Fri., July 28 (the same day Wind opens at theaters farther north), the Screening Room will host a one-week Kiarostami retrospective that, besides Close-Up and Taste of Cherry, includes New York's first-ever showing in order of the films that critics have dubbed "the Koker Trilogy": Where Is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On (aka Life and Nothing More, 1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994; this one will be seen in a new print; I'll introduce its 9:45 p.m. shows Fri. and Sat., July 28-29).
The Koker Trilogy?so called?was not planned or made as a trilogy and Kiarostami has even declined to call it one himself, yet it strikes me as the most extraordinary multipart "film" (Kieslowski's included) since Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, in part because of what it shows us about Kiarostami's post-1979 work: how each film after the first seems organically yet unpredictably to grow out of, comment on and alter the meaning of the previous film or films; how, indeed, the meaning of each work increasingly belongs less to that movie than to the ever-evolving whole.
To be properly evaluated and even fully enjoyed, then, his work (at least its postrevolutionary phase) needs to be comprehended in its entirety. Likewise, "reading" each new film primarily entails understanding its relationship to previous Kiarostami films, not to films by anyone else or film in general. But isn't this contrary to cinematic common sense? Shouldn't every film stand on its own? No doubt. My description may have inadvertently suggested negatives. Take two, then: One way or another, every Kiarostami film stands on its own. Yet when they are all seen together, as a fascinatingly interrelated, intricately self-modifying aggregate, their significance seems to grow exponentially, even to the point that you can imagine a critic (not me, but someone) voting for Kiarostami as the past decade's most important director.
That said, we can move on to the fact that The Wind Will Carry Us is the first Kiarostami film that almost doesn't stand on its own. His most profoundly if amorphously self-referential work to date, it's as likely to enthrall fans as it is to puzzle outsiders. Its story opens with a carful of men from Tehran approaching a village in Iranian Kurdistan, where they're met by a boy named Farzad whose family, it seems, has been expecting them. Much that follows is left deliberately obscure, including who the men are (the villagers call them "engineers," a term applied to any educated technical person) and exactly what they're doing in the village. From things that are said as the tale progresses, it's possible to gather that they are a tv news crew that's come to film a primitive funeral ceremony that will take place after an elderly, ailing local woman dies.
As it turns out, the woman unexpectedly clings to life, which leaves the men to putter around the village awaiting instructions from their superior. Anxious for those, the team's poker-faced leader, Bezhad (Bezhad Dourani), repeatedly dashes to the top of a nearby hill to improve the reception on his cellphone. There, he discovers an old cemetery and has conversations with a man who's digging a ditch that he says is for "telecommunications."
On a moment-to-moment level, the film has an engagingly lyrical, bemusedly comic tone, with gorgeous visuals (thanks to Mahmoud Kalari's terrific cinematography) and plenty of droll, documentary-like observations regarding village life. There's even a dark undertow that surfaces when Bezhad hears that the ceremony he's there to observe involves women scarring themselves to improve their social status.
But far more striking than any of this is how much the film withholds from the viewer. Not only is the story's basic premise left hazy and unresolved throughout, but 11 important characters?including the ditchdigger, the dying woman and Bezhad's companions?are never seen. Kiarostami makes reference to them or lets us hear their voices, but otherwise keeps them hidden.
Remember films like Last Year at Marienbad and The Seventh Seal and 2001?among many others?that refused to be comprehended except in terms of "symbolism"? Well, The Wind Will Carry Us seems to brandish the same refusal, which also functions as an insistence that the viewer supply much of the film's meaning. To do that, one perhaps should start with comparisons to Kiarostami's previous films, and note that this one, his first purposely and unavoidably cryptic work, reverses a number of his usual practices and assumptions: things that were formerly apparent and available (story, characters) are now deliberately muddied, while things previously unspecified or implicit are suddenly explicit.
The latter brings us round, finally, to poetry. Though Kiarostami's films are frequently called poetic, this is the first one in which characters quote poetry to each other, a device that enfolds numerous levels of meaning. At the most basic, it demonstrates that (as my friend pointed out) Iranians of all different social and education levels and backgrounds know large amounts of poetry, from ancient to modern, and use it as a kind of supplementary language or frame of reference that eludes banal as well as various sorts of "official" (including orthodox religious) meanings.
On another level, the film's use of poetry presents us with a self-conscious analogue for what Kiarostami sees himself as doing. In talking about The Wind Will Carry Us as well as his work in general, he has referred to his notion of the "half-made film," in which the elements that are erased or left incomplete invite the viewer's imaginative participation. Thus one can read Wind as a fable about modern, technological man's absurdity vis-a-vis traditional modes of life, or some such; the basic point is that the film allows you to read it as you will, rather than supplying the kind of ready-made, one-size-fits-all reading that most films assume.
Third, recognizing that Kiarostami's influences include modernist poetry of both Western and Iranian varieties, it's worth noting that virtually all of his work has confessional or autobiographical ramifications. Just as he appeared in Close-Up and fictionalized himself in And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry's would-be suicide implicitly contains aspects of self-portraiture. If this is likewise true of Wind, and I think it must be, what does it say that Bezhad is a near misanthrope whose attitude toward the village seems essentially uncaring, sarcastic and exploitative? At the very least, it puts a chunky dent in Kiarostami's image as a benign, all-purpose humanist.
Finally, I think Kiarostami makes some important points in the poetry he chooses to quote, especially in framing the story's climax with verses by the eminent modernist Forugh Farrokhzad (whose poem "The Wind Will Carry Us" provides the film's title) and the 11th-century master Omar Khayyam. But here we run into a potential pitfall. Is it possible that the movie's most crucial levels of meaning will be unavailable to viewers unfamiliar with Iranian literary and philosophical culture? An article by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the new Film Comment finds it "clear that Kiarostami is addressing global culture, not just other Iranians." Pardon me, but I would say Steven Spielberg and Majid Majidi are the ones addressing global culture. I think Kiarostami's ultimately addressing himself?and perhaps a few other Gnostics.
Which brings us to Sufism. The word perhaps has unfortunate connotations to some, so permit me to amend it to Iranian esoteric thought and to suggest that The Wind Will Carry Us, which is also the first Kiarostami film that abounds in discrete religious references, taps into the Persian tradition of "visionary recitals" (literary works concerning mystical quests) that includes several celebrated treatises by the 12th-century philosopher Shihabuddin Suhrawardi as well as Farid Ud-din Attar's The Conference of the Birds, the latter of which supposedly influenced both The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy.
While those Iranian works will be unfamiliar to most Westerners, the fictional cosmos implied is akin to that of Plato and, especially, Plotinus and other Neoplatonists. The soul descends into matter and then attempts to ascend toward its divine Source. I don't have the space here even to begin a comprehensive interpretation of The Wind Will Carry Us along these lines, but the key things to note are that the story's spatial dynamics are pervasively symbolic, and that Bezhad's quest at every stage involves reorienting himself from the horizontal (the "flatland," mundane reality) toward the vertical, with its opportunity for an ascent toward true Meaning?which in fact is where the film's poetic and philosophic arcs converge.
Or maybe I'm just crazy. In any case, just as The Wind Will Carry Us both invites and admits numerous interpretations, Kiarostami is arguably the only current director operating on the level where Antonioni, Kubrick, Bergman and the like once filled the cinema with intellectual delights. That, too bears, contemplation.
A footnote regarding the Iranian esoteric thought mentioned above. Anyone interested in pursuing the subject is advised to log on to Amazon.com or such and look into the amazing oeuvre of the French Iranologist Henry Corbin (1903-'78). I've half-jokingly described Corbin's work as like Carlos Casteneda as rewritten by Jean-Paul Sartre, but covering mystical/intellectual terrain that's Islamic. I know Iranians who object that he lashes Persian material too closely to his own philosophical objectives, but for Westerners Corbin's a great primary guide to the esthetic dimensions of Iranian mysticism. His books include Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism and others.