A film about two guys in their 20s riding on a motorcycle through South America in the 1950s should have been easy to make entertaining, especially when the travellers in question come from comfortable middle-class families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the people in the places they visit are not only poor farmers, miners and labourers, these folks are also indigenous or part-indigenous people who might never have heard of Argentina or know it only as a country full of rich snobs. Add to that scenario the fact that one of the Argentine travellers is one Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or “Fuser” as he was known at the time by his pals: yes, that Ernesto Guevara aka Che Guevara the diplomat, writer, politician and revolutionary. Throw in side-trips to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, sites of the once-mighty Incan civilisation, with the added attraction of magnificent Andean mountain settings for the latter place; journeys across the Argentine pampa and over the snowy Argentine-Chilean Andes down to Valparaiso in Chile; an ill-advised hike by foot and hitch-hiking through the Atacama desert towards Peru; and a 3-week sojourn at a leper colony in Peru’s Amazonian territory near the end. How can you not make of this mixture a colourful and invigorating road trip spiced with questions about how some parts of South America became rich and other parts poor, how the aboriginal peoples were brought down so low by European colonisation, and what can the travellers do in their small ways to make amends for this situation?
Amazingly “The Motorcycle Diaries”, directed by Brazilian director Walther Salles using Guevara’s memoirs of the same name, and featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Fuser with Rodrigo de la Serna (in real life related to Guevara) as travelling companion Alberto Granado, turns out to be a hard and earnest slog starved for energy and vitality through an itinerary of touristy spots without the rip-off souvenir shops. The miners, farmers and other labourers Fuser and Granado meet add some substance and flavour to the places ticked off on their list but viewers get no sense of connection, of brotherly feeling between the Argentines and the people they meet. Part of the problem here is the blank-slate soporific acting style adopted by Garcia Bernal in playing Fuser: viewers have no idea of what Fuser’s early background was like apart from his being a medical student. Even in voice-over narrations when writing to his parents in letters and diary entries, Fuser never refers to past memories of family life which might hint at his relatively privileged childhood and the education he received. He comes over as a geeky and socially awkward young man with bland pretty-boy looks more likely to accept his doctor slot in the capitalist slave wage society, patching up people who get hurt in the course of being ground down by the system and fixing their problems so they can get back to being ground down, than as an independent-minded rebel in the making. The real-life Che Guevara must have been a much more intelligent, inquisitive and engaging man than the enervated and watery being viewers see in the film.
The other part of the problem is the narrative structure and the filming approach used to support it: “The Motorcycle Diaries” plays out in traditional story-telling mode about two travellers who want to go sight-seeing, pick up girls and have a good time; and the film crew use a mix of tracking, close-ups and occasional fixed shots to follow the duo. Very much a conventional way of recording Guevara’s memoirs in visual form but limited and alienating the audience as well: we go from A to B all the way to Z in a way that loses its zip as one picturesque scene after another ends up blending into a string of picturesque scenes all very much the same. There is no sense of a structure to the film other than a loosely knit series of both comedy and serious drama sketches in which Fuser and Granado suffer mishaps with the wheezing motorbike, get into scraps with men in small towns after flirting with their wives and girlfriends, lose their tent and beg for food, money and shelter from strangers; this could be any road-trip story with a couple of bumbling characters playing straight man and comic.
The film might have worked better if it had employed a more journalistic approach with occasional handheld camera shots of Fuser and Granado conversing with the people they meet, learning of their problems with their employers, landlords and the police, and put cameras on the motorbike itself in scenes where the men travel in the countryside and crash into cows or fall into ditches to convey a sense of movement, the thrill and dangers of travelling in unknown places where anything could happen, and the joy of being free and knowing that the people you will meet know nothing about you and have no expectations of you. A mix of different points of view or even using first-person viewpoints (Fuser or Granado) might have helped, particularly in scenes set in the leper colony so viewers get a sense of the ostracism and other indignities suffered by leprosy patients from the nuns, along with voice-over narration from Garcia Bernal as Fuser to put the scenes in both a historical and personal context that gives viewers some idea of what might have gone on in Fuser’s head and how he arrived at the conclusion that being a revolutionary would do more for the downtrodden and exploited than being a doctor.
At least the stunning landscapes, the towns visited and the indigenous people who share their problems with Fuser and Granado, as identified by Fuser/Guevara in 1952 when he took his trip, provide the film’s saving grace and make it worth seeing.
Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.
It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.
The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.
Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.
The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.
“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.
Stripped of the hype that has grown around it over the years, “Easy Rider” is a well-made if loose low-budget flick about two drug dealers Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively) who, having come into a big sum of money from supplying smuggled cocaine to a man (Phil Spector) in a Rolls Royce, decide to ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their chopper bikes to see Mardi Gras, and then on to Florida where they plan to retire and live off the proceeds of the drug sale. Although the movie draws inspiration from the hippie counter-culture of the period and features a music soundtrack of songs from various American pop and rock acts of the time, in a way it’s not really so much an investigation into the alternative culture as it is into mainstream American culture at the time seen through the mirror of the hippie culture, and what it reveals about mainstream culture, or mainstream culture in the US Deep South, is not a pretty sight at all.
Their money stuffed into the petrol tank of Wyatt’s chopper, the two ride through spectacular desert scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, meeting various folks along the way and encountering all manner of reactions to their appearance and apparently free life-style: a hospitable rancher whose down-to-earth way of life is admired by Wyatt; a hitch-hiker who directs the travellers to take him to his commune that practises free love and tries to eke a living by growing crops in the harsh desert conditions; various small-town folks in Louisiana who deeply disapprove of the strangers in their midst and want to run them out of town; a drunken lawyer, George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), who frees the bikers from jail; two prostitutes called Mary and Karen (Toni Basil and Karen Black respectively); and two trigger-happy hillbillies. The narrative is tightly bound: the hitch-hiker gives Wyatt and Billy some LSD which they later share with Mary and Karen, and all of them experiencing a bad hallucination; the hippies and Hansen embody aspects of an alternative way of living and thinking to what most Americans in the late 1960’s believed was “normal” or conventional; and the hippies’ precarious life-style and Hansen’s violent beating and murder presage an ugly end for the bikers themselves.
For me the surprise is that Wyatt and Billy are much less “rebellious” than everybody has believed them to be: Wyatt appears to yearn for a simple, less materialist and more spiritual life and has more confidence in the hippies’ ability to survive in the desert than his more worldly companion; and Billy is really a conventional guy at heart who lives for the moment and connects being rich with living it up and having lots of girls fawning over him for his wealth. The guys are “rebellious” only in the sense that they take the values of freedom and individuality that American culture supposedly prizes at face value and practise them in real life. Perhaps the really rebellious character is Hansen, the spoilt geek son of a big-fish rich lawyer in their small-pond part of Louisiana, who expresses his desire for a more equal and socialistic society when, drawing on a marijuana reefer, he waxes very lyrically about a UFO Billy saw some time ago and says it is part of a fleet of UFOs operated by aliens whose technology and culture are far more advanced and humane than those of humans. Nicholson plays Hansen in a deliberately over-the-top zonked-out performance that endears him to viewers and makes his opinions less extreme than they would be had they come from a more conventional and restrained character; it also makes his death more horrific and affecting, as he is the one character in the movie who genuinely believes in democracy and equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour or early background, and practises what he preaches (he works for the American Civil Liberties Union).
The style of film-making is unusual for a Hollywood movie of its time: there’s not much dialogue in early scenes and the camera often rests its gaze on objects or passes over scenes at unusual angles without anyone saying anything in the background; and in one scene when the bikers visit the hippie commune, the camera pans right around the circle of hippies to capture the feeling of a community. The part where the bikers and the prostitutes experience the bad effects of an LSD trip is a highly experimental sequence of quick camera shots and editing, juxtaposing religious pictures and symbols and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with scenes of the foursome stumbling about in a cemetery, Karen stuck howling in a narrow passage between walls and Mary stripping for Wyatt. The camera sometimes spins about as if in a panic and sunlight appears to stream down so much it hurts the eyes.
If the film makes a comment on the hippie counter-culture, it is that taking drugs isn’t necessarily a release from dreary, everyday life and can have frightening psychological effects on people, and that idealism has to be tempered with realism. The hippies encountered don’t seem all that happy with their lot, the men listlessly scattering seed over barren ground, and the women labouring in the kitchen and caring for the children; they may have longer hair and more colourful clothes than regular folks did in their time but their sexual politics are just as conservative, unequal and taken for granted. The overall opinion of “Easy Rider” to aspects of the counter-culture is quite conservative and not necessarily the correct one: when Hansen initially hesitates to take the reefer and suggests it might lead him to “harder stuff”, the bikers’ reaction is silence, as if confirming that point of view. The idea that using marijuana serves as a gateway to using other more dangerous drugs is a highly controversial one with a history of medical research that produces contradictory results, depending on how the study or experiment is designed. It may well be that in many countries the illegal status of marijuana itself makes it a gateway drug if it is supplied by the same people who supply harder drugs.
The meaning of freedom is explored in the film somewhat: Billy seeks materialistic freedom, Wyatt is after a more abstract and spiritual freedom and Hansen wishes for the freedom of a fuller, richer life experience that he so far hasn’t had. One irony of “Easy Rider” is that neither Billy, Wyatt nor Hansen finds the freedom he yearns for, or in the case of Wyatt and Hansen, they experience the downside of the freedom they seek, Hansen in particular paying the price for breaking out of his conventional Southern upbringing by being beaten up by small-minded and prejudiced Southern white men. The second irony is that the freedom the bikers enjoy in the film was always going to be short-lived – it would only last as long as their last penny. Even as “rebels”, Wyatt and Billy are still dependent on the capitalist economy to support them and so in that sense they are not really free.
The surprising thing is that the film isn’t more dated than it is, especially in its themes and ideas. Part of the reason is that in the last 30 years, US society has gone back on much of the social progress it made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hansen’s remark about the place of freedom in US society – that it’s fine for people to talk about freedom and about being free, but living it is what frightens people (and by implication the authorities) – finds its uncomfortable echo in the US government’s increasingly neo-fascist treatment of its citizens in so many areas of life, society and culture as the country continues to bog down in wars in western Asia with no clear exit strategy in sight.
François Dupeyron, “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (2003)
This is an easy-going coming-of-age story based on a novel of the same name set in Paris in the early 1960’s. The material is lightweight and familiar – wayward youngster taken in hand by a kindly adult who teaches him about life and living – but is given gravity and warmth by lead actor Omar Sharif who plays Ibrahim Demirdji, the Turkish shop-owner who befriends a lonely Jewish teenager Momo (Pierre Boulanger) and eventually adopts him as his son. The movie divides into two roughly equal halves, one half focussing on the slow disintegration of Momo’s family and early life, and the other half being a one-way road movie.
At the start Momo lives with his father (Gilbert Melki) who seems depressed, cares little for his son’s well-being and treats the boy as house-keeper and cook in their working-class apartment on the Rue Bleue. During the day, the boy hangs out with the local kids who keep him updated with the latest songs and dances. Local prostitutes provide him with his first sexual encounters and some emotional comfort. He shops for food and household supplies at Demirdji’s general grocery store across the road and over time the elderly man guesses that the boy needs some psychological and spiritual guidance and direction, and starts providing it. He encourages Momo to see religion not as a set of rules and rituals but as a personal faith and philosophy to guide a person in life. While Momo and Ibrahim draw closer in their daily encounters, the father becomes more distant from the son and buries himself in work. In spite of this, he ends up being sacked and decides to leave his son to fend for himself. Momo copes well on his own at first but then receives news that his father has committed suicide. Demirdji then adopts Momo and sets about educating him in life and experiences: he buys a snazzy red car, takes driving lessons and plans a trip through Europe to Turkey. The two then set off and whiz quickly through the continent and reach Istanbul. After enjoying the sights and learning about the city’s culture, Momo accompanies Demirdji on his trip deeper into the Anatolian rural heartland.
One aspect of this film is issues that appear are never revealed in their entirety. We learn early on that Momo’s mother left the family many years ago but no-one knows why. Later when she appears after the father’s suicide, she fails to recognise Momo (he pretends to be someone else and she falls for the ploy) and tells him he never had an older brother called Popol. What effect this has on Momo – because his father used “Popol” as a stick to beat his son psychologically – and on his opinion of his father, we never learn because for one thing the mother then disappears from Momo’s life, perhaps forever. We also never discover what Demirdji is driving towards – there’s an unfortunate accident – or what he had in mind when he decided to take Momo on the car trip. There’s the possibility that he wished to take Momo through Turkey to Iran (Persia) as early on in the movie, he tells Momo that he is not Arab but comes from “the Golden Crescent” (a region stretching from Anatolia to Persia inclusive) and that at film’s end, Momo’s “education” still has a long way to go and is something he must complete himself. Disappointingly the film’s conclusion looks very much a cop-out and suggests that Momo’s self-realisation will be a repetitive self-referential loop.
It’s basically a sleepwalk for Sharif with regard to acting effort: the most he does is beam a lot and pretend to make a fuss in front of a car dealer. Boulanger’s equally minimal acting seems appropriate for a teenage boy who has grown up emotionally distant from both parents and is understandably wary of friendly strangers. Both actors complement each other well in their scenes together and though mawkishness does creep in, still you can’t help feeling a bit sad when eventually Demirdji must leave Momo and Momo finds himself all alone again. Isabelle Adjani turns up in a brief cameo playing Brigitte Bardot filming a scene for a movie (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” which was made in 1963) and later visiting Demirdji’s grocery store.
The film makes a better shot of showing how two people of different generations, religion and social background can find a connection, than it does of Momo’s transformation from a bewildered, emotionally lost child estranged from his religion as well as his family to someone with more self-knowledge and awareness who is able to pass wisdom onto other troubled kids. The film does try to suggest commonalities between two religions (the two main characters are named after revered prophets Abraham and Moses in both the Jewish and Islamic religions) and that religious belief and faith are independent of labels and obeying rules and stereotypes, allowing for the kind of fluid religious identity that Momo achieves. Though there’s not much to suggest that Momo has already been schooled in Jewish religious belief by his father. Perhaps if there had been a voice-over narrative done by Momo as a mature man, commenting on aspects of his adolescence, viewers would get a stronger sense of Momo on the road to personal growth and the film might not be so sentimental.
I also think the film would have been a lot stronger and more profound if it hadn’t stuck closely to the source novel by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, and had a completely different ending in which Momo pursues a varied and different career path, and derives more self-knowledge and a greater understanding of what Demirdji had tried to teach him. As the events in the film date back nearly 50 years ago, having a conclusion set in the present day, with Momo in his twilight years reflecting over a past life (in which perhaps he had become a civic leader and tried to improve conditions in the neighbourhood of Rue Bleue) and remembering the lessons of his youth, might be more appropriate than a coda in which Momo is a young man running the shop and seeing his adolescence reflected in a young shoplifter.
Not often that you come across a film bearing a strong conservation message combined with a package of stunning mountain and desert scenery, a sub-text about honour and camaraderie despite political differences and some limited commentary on social and economic conditions in a particular region. In the space of 90 mintes, Lu Chuan’s “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” weaves all these and other concerns into a structure that appears as part-documentary / part-news item / part-drama set on the high Tibetan plateau in western China. While the film’s thrust is a plea to audiences to help save and preserve populations of the Tibetan antelope and stop the illegal trade in their skins, there are other issues touched on in the film that deserve equal importance.
News reporter Gayu (Zhang Lei) arrives in a small Tibetan frontier town to investigate the murder of a patrol-man by antelope poachers and find out more about the patrol itself. He meets the head of the patrol Ritai (Du Buojie) and his right-hand man Liu Dong (Qi Liang) who agree to take him on a typical patrol to search for the poachers. The journey of several patrol-men into the mountains and over the high plains is arduous. Gayu comes to realise that Ritai’s relentless pursuit of the poachers, all of them well-known to the patrol, is dangerous due in part to the severe and unpredictable weather and the general physical conditions. It’s also futile for the patrol: the lack of proper and regular government funding means that the patrol quickly runs short on supplies so Ritai sends Liu Dong back into town (hundreds of kilometres away) for more food and fuel, and has to leave two other patrol-men behind when a patrol-car runs out of petrol. The group left to pursue the poachers is seriously under-manned. Liu Dong also has to sell some antelope pelts to raise cash for medicine for the injured patrol-men who go back to town with him and to buy supplies, and thus the patrol itself is implicated in the illegal trade. The search ends in disaster for the entire patrol: the two patrol-men minding the car grow weak and hungry and eventually perish in a severe snow-storm; Liu Dong gets the supplies but ends up dying in dry quicksand when his van is bogged down on the way back; and Ritai is shot dead by the poachers’ leader when eventually he catches up with the whole group and finds himself out-numbered and out-gunned. Only Gayu survives to make his own way back to civilisation with Ritai’s body.
Though Ritai’s pursuit of the poachers is ultimately suicidal, the viewer realises from the men’s encounters that both the hunters and hunted know each other too well and an unspoken code of honour exists between the two groups. The patrol-men seem to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the adventures they have together and the poachers get a kick out of being wanted men and leading the patrol on a wild goose chase. The poachers even know that their pursuers are often short on money and offer them the chance to become poachers themselves and never want for money for the rest of their lives. The honour system breaks down due to the overall poverty of the region that forces Ritai to abandon his prisoners to the mercy of nature and which is also partly why the poachers continue their illegal work in spite of being captured, fined or punished repeatedly.
Apart from Du Buojie and Qi Liang, all the actors who appear are native Tibetan amateurs and some of their dialogue may well be improvised. Du portrays Ritai as a hard-bitten anti-hero type who pushes and tests himself and his men against nature as well as try to protect it. The physical environment of the Tibetan plateau emerges as a significant “character” as well as a magnificent and stunning backdrop: the harsh and capricious weather and the treacherous roads and geology direct much of the simple plot and are the cause of several characters’ deaths. The film crew also suffered hardships and illnesses and the production manager from Columbia Pictures, one of the film’s sponsors, died in a car accident on location. Significant too is the use of Tibetan music, both the droning music of the monasteries during the sky-burial scenes of two patrol-men and the rustic folk music, to give the film a distinctive melancholy atmosphere and a sense of isolation and loneliness.
The use of the Tibetan equivalent of what we might call Country and Western music brings up the question of how closely the film resembles Western genre films. Several conventions of the Western genre are present: among other things, the pursuit of bad guys by the good guys which takes them through a remote and harsh environment that becomes a significant antagonist to the good guys and tests their physical and moral being; moreover, the pursuit takes on obsessive overtones for Ritai, far beyond the pleasure of the chase or the chance for adventure; and the film calls into question whether an abstract ideal or simply doing what the law requires can be worth sacrificing the lives of good, brave men like Liu Dong. The good guys and the bad guys are evenly matched in weaponry and arguments for their respective causes, and the film may attain a power from the ambiguous moral positions of the heroes and villains who find they actually have much in common. Often the women in such films have very minor roles as girlfriends or wives pleading with their menfolk to stay home (and stay alive) and this is the case with “Kekexili …”, in which Liu Dong’s scenes with his prostitute girlfriend provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moments before he leaves her to start back on his tragically fatal journey.
For all the power of the imagery, the themes and the plot, I find the “happy” ending, done entirely in subtitles, rather too pat for my liking. The film does say the Tibetan antelope was granted protection from illegal poaching by the establishment of a national reserve and a fully funded, professional patrol replacing the volunteer patrol. There is nothing said about whether the volunteers were invited to join the professional patrol or if the professional patrol is staffed by both Tibetans and Chinese. This makes me wonder whether the problem Ritai mentions to Gayu about the patrol’s funding is actually one of forgetfulness and neglect on the government’s part, and not one of the government deliberately ignoring the patrol because it happens to be a local Tibetan initiative born out of love and respect for nature. All too often in many parts of the world, conservation measures to preserve endangered animal and plant species or to protect the natural environment founder because the local community is not consulted or is not allowed to have an active role in the conservation project.
On the surface this looks like a very minimalist, in parts improvised film about a man contemplating suicide who implores three people to help him. Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, in his acting debut) who may or may not be a taxi driver – most interpretations of the film assume he is but I didn’t see anything in the film that suggests what his occupation is – drives around Tehran’s industrial and working class zones in his Range Rover trying to pick up a passenger among the various loitering men he sees. At first the suggestion is he may be trying to pick up a potential boyfriend or male prostitute and some of the men he talks to certainly think that’s what he wants. A shy teenage army recruit decides to get into the car and Badii takes him on a long journey out of town and into a semi-barren area where dirt roads twist and wind around hills in an invisible labyrinth. Naturally the recruit wants to know why they passed his barracks and Badii tells him he’s needed for a job. Badii needles some information out of the youngster and we learn the boy is from a Kurdish farming family and needs money to support his relatives and maybe resume his schooling. Badii offers to pay the youngster huge sums of money if he will do what Badii wants him to do. Deep in the scrubby desert, Badii stops on a particular stretch of road, points out an empty grave next to a tree (both never seen in the film) and tells the boy that he, Badii, plans to swallow all his sleeping pills and lie in that grave overnight. The boy’s job is to return the following morning and call out to him: if Badii responds, the boy is to help him out of the grave; if Badii doesn’t reply, the boy is to bury him. The teenager, spooked, refuses to help Badii in this way and dashes off to rejoin his barracks.
Badii gets back in his car and drives down to what looks like a waste tip supervised by a lone security guard. This guy turns out to be an Afghan and in his conversation with Badii, we learn that there are some 2 – 3 million Afghans working in Iran, probably in jobs and industries where the pay is bad and the work is hard and dangerous; and that while Iran was preoccupied with the decade-long war against Iraq in the 1680’s, few Iranians spared a thought for their Afghan neighbours fighting the Soviets in a tougher war in the same period. Badii offers to drive the security guard around to relieve the tedium of his work but the guard declines: he has a friend, a young seminarian, come to visit and keep him company. Badii sees the seminarian in the near distance so goes out to see him and offers him a ride. The seminarian accepts and so again Badii asks him about his background: the fellow has come from Afghanistan seeking labouring work so he can continue his theological studies. Badii offers him the same job and money he offered to the soldier; the seminarian argues that suicide is forbidden by their common Islamic faith. Badii protests that God surely allows people to kill themselves if not doing so is the greater sin because of the risk of harming other people if one were to continue to live. The seminarian continues to put up a weak and dogmatic religious argument against suicide and soon leaves Badii.
After a period of despair, Badii picks up a third man, this time an Azeri or Turkish man, Mr Bagheri (Abdolhossain Bagheri), apparently a simple, warm-hearted chap who in turn is subjected to Badii’s suicide proposition. Bagheri then talks about his own attempt to commit suicide by hanging from a mulberry tree and about how he eventually was dissuaded from killing himself by a quirk of fate: he eats a mulberry and finds it delicious. This leads to a lengthy amble about appreciating nature and simple things, and not to allow life’s pressures to overcome one’s thinking as eventually they will pass. If one changes one’s outlook, one can change the world. The pop psychology advice makes little impression on Badii. Bagheri agrees to Badii’s proposition as he could use the money for his sick son and Badii drops him off at a natural history museum where he works. Suddenly anxious, Badii visits the museum and meets Bagheri again, this time a technical or scientific worker specialising in taxidermy, who brusquely assures him he’ll be at the graveside at the crack of dawn.
Up to this point the film has been very straightforward if minimal and stingy with details. We know nothing about Badii, why he spends his time driving aimlessly around soliciting help for an elaborate suicide plan, how he has come into so much money if he’s supposedly a taxi driver (an occupation not known for making easy money – and Range Rovers are hardly what I’d call typical taxi cars) and what has happened that he is so despondent that he wants to end his life. The lack of specific background knowledge about Badii makes him a representative of humanity rather than a particular human being. Likewise, the three people he picks up represent particular sections of Iranian society, all tied somehow to the Iranian government: the military, the religious class and the bureaucracy; they also represent three stages in the life of a human being: youth, early adulthood and early old age. In addition Bagheri isn’t what he seems at first: in the car, he babbles on and on about living in the moment, enjoying nature and having a different outlook on life; he quotes poetry and sings a song to cheer up Badii; he understands Badii’s pain and readily talks about his own suicide attempt. Out of the car and in the grounds of the museum, Bagheri appears in a lab coat, his entire being radiating a superior, impatient attitude – this hints at how a person’s circumstances determine his or her personality and undercuts what he told Badii in the car. This is a chilling moment which may say something about modern Iranian society that prompts some people to have split personalities to survive in it.
After the scenes with Bagheri, we see Badii shutting up his apartment, being driven back into the badlands, preparing for his death and lying in his tomb. The weather turns bad and there’s a thunderstorm. The film suddenly blacks out and pops out into an apparently washed-out dream sequence (this part of the film is recorded on a handheld video recorder) with soldiers chanting and marching up a hill to where Badii’s grave lies. Kiarostami and his film crew appear on another part of the hill filming the soldiers and issuing instructions to their leader via cellphone or walkie-talkie while actor Ershadi waits nearby. In the distance, Badii’s car zooms off with an unseen driver. I was disappointed initially at never learning if Badii lives or dies but this is not what the film is about: among other things it’s about one man’s questioning of the world he has to live in through the theme of suicide. He interrogates others through their experience about this world and finds their answers unsatisfactory or contradictory. He questions the army recruit about his experience of the army and the recruit is unable or reluctant to reply, perhaps because his experience is so different from what Badii remembers of his own military experience. He interrogates the seminarian and the seminarian’s answers demonstrate book-learning and deference to authority rather than understanding of what he’s learned. Badii interrogates the taxidermist whose answers seem New-Age banal and whose work and later attitude undermine everything he says. Life around Badii also exhibits contradictions, some a bit cruel: after he finds someone who agrees to help him commit suicide, he suddenly sees flowers and trees in a flourishing landscape, he sees a young woman who asks him to take a photograph of her with her boyfriend and all of a sudden women start appearing, walking with school-children or attending Bagheri’s lecture at the museum.
Significantly the women we see, though dressed according to conservative Islamic doctrine, seem to be educated middle class or independent types while most men in the film are poor, ignorant or in a position of serving others: in a severe theocratic society dominated by men, that’s a very strange contradiction indeed. Badii himself may be a contrast to these men: his demeanour and manner, and some of the things he says, suggest he is highly educated and cultured and perhaps finds himself an outsider which would give his pain an existential edge. He is unaware of his own contradictions: he’s intent on ending it all yet takes care going down an unsteady ladder, refuses a meal because it might set off a bad allergic reaction and manages to avoid two serious car accidents. He remembers his time in the army as the happiest time in his life, meeting people and making friends, yet he must have also been shooting and killing lots of people. Perhaps this knowledge is a burden on his mind and has contributed to his decision to end his life?
The film’s simple style belies its careful construction: much of the time we see Badii framed by the windscreen or the window of his car and we never see him and his passenger together in the one shot. It’s as if we’re not just eavesdropping in the conversations between him and his passengers, we’re actually in their heads going from one to the other. At times the camera draws away from the car to take in the scenery which becomes very significant: from the time Badii meets the soldier and presents his proposition to the time Bagheri accepts it, the film is centred in a barren, scrubby landscape of hills and dirt roads that snake around them and fork off into different directions. This landscape perhaps reflects Badii’s inner world, going around in circles each time someone rebuffs him. When he is at his most desperate, he is in a landscape of rubbish dumps and flying dust clouds, reflecting his fragmenting state of mind. Only after Bagheri agrees to the deal does the landscape spring into life. The changing moods of the landscape are in stark contrast to Ershadi’s acting: Ershadi usually has just one expression and one even tone of voice throughout the film which on paper wouldn’t qualify him as having any acting skill at all, yet by his movements and sometimes doleful look in his eyes, and the slight speed in his voice in scenes with the seminarian and Bagheri, he actually does convey something of Badii’s inner anguish and despair. The totally unexpected thing is that since making “Taste of Cherry”, Ershadi has had a steady if not prolific acting career; I’ve seen him in “The Kite Runner” where he had a significant acting and speaking role and his character had to age 10-15 years, and for someone of limited range and no training, he was impressive in an unassuming and straightforward way.
Most reviewers see “Taste of Cherry” as a gentle and meditative film about enjoying life’s pleasures but I find its real underlying message severe and uncompromising. I think Iranian viewers (the target audience) are asked to question the kind of society they live in that causes people like Badii to conclude that he and others would be better off if he killed himself. The answer doesn’t look good: some recent statistics released by the Aria Strategic Studies Center and quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency show that 30% of people in Tehran have severe depression and another 28% suffer mild depression with some of causes being violence by security and law enforcement, mass arrest and murder of arrested citizens in torture centres or during protests and the results of the 2009 Presidential election, and other causes relating to the falling economic situation which is partly caused by a corrupt and incompetent government. (Source: Payvand News of Iran, www.payvand.com) I don’t know if Tehran is representative of Iran but it does have about 18% of the country’s population. Telling people living in a brutal and grinding police state that they should live for the moment and take pleasure in the simple things in life becomes an insult when I see figures like these.