Reviews and notes
1994 Fajr, Cannes, Edinburgh, Montréal, Locarno, Vancouver, Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Vienna, São Paulo, London, Chicago, Thessaloniki, Stockholm
1995 Belgrade, Singapore, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Wellington, Melbourne, Sydney, Warsaw
Kiarostami takes meta-narrative gamesmanship to masterful new heights in the final installment of his celebrated Koker trilogy. Unfolding ‘behind the scenes’ of the shooting of the previous film in the series, And Life Goes On...
. Through the Olive Trees
traces the complications that arise when the romantic misfortune of one of the actors – a lovelorn young man who pines for the woman cast as his wife even though, in real life, she will have nothing to do with him – creates turmoil on set and leaves the hapless director caught in the middle. An ineffably lovely, gentle human comedy steeped in the folkways of Iranian village life, this Pirandellian pastoral peels away layer after layer of artifice as it investigates the elusive, alchemical relationship between cinema and reality.
- Janus Films.
With this final segment, Abbas Kiarostami's trilogy of films set in the Northern Iranian village of Koker simultaneously reaches a point of maximum complexity and minimum drama. What started out in the first film, Where Is My Friend's House?
, as a parable of childhood savvy - albeit one shot in a neo-realist style with certain self-reflexive trimmings - has become in this latest film a studious attempt to eradicate the old boundary between unmediated cinema verite and the shaping process of fiction film-making.
What Through the Olive Tree
makes clear, despite its simple tale of two young lovers shrugging off the grief caused by an earthquake disaster, is that Kiarostami's mission is not simply to interrogate the film-making process. He wants to transend the unsettling dichotomy between showing real people retelling their real lives and fictionalising that retelling for a film. His aim is a representation that is simultaneously naturalistic and discreetly formal, in which film-making has demonstrably become as much a complicit part of Koker village life after the earthquake as, say, living in a tent.
There is much irony to be derived from Kiarostami's success in achieving this balance, as he appears almost desperate to show us that the ordinary people he uses as actors can be just as difficult as Hollywood stars. The orphaned teenage girl, Tahereh, seems in need of proportionally as much pampering (in budget terms) as, say, Kim Basinger. Her ardent suitor, Hossein, although a willing factotum to the film crew, requires near-equal attention when acting. Even a teacher who appeared in Friends' House
lobbies hard for a role in the film within the film. This is a tale of frail egos inflamed with survivors' pride. There's no room here for the sentimental impulses some reviewers detected in Friends' House
While this is the first time in the trilogy that Kiarostami's subject is overtly the making of a film rather than the telling of a story, its complexity is compounded by the fact that the film being shot within it is Olive Trees
' predeccessor in the trilogy, And Life Goes On...
. That latter film has its own self-reflexive element, but the motivation for it is more obvious: a 'director' tries to find out if two young boys from his film Where Is My Friend's House?
have survived the earthquake. With Olive Trees
Kiarostami has moved one step back from such an emotive pretext. Here it's simply the making of a film for its own sake that reveals the Koker locals to us.
There are several scenes, all presumably directed by Kiarostami, in which an actor playing a film director directs an actor playing a film director. This almost arrogant distancing process is perhaps self-mockingly lampooned when the director (played by Keshavarz) tells Kherdamend (who plays the 'director' in the inner film) about the ghosts of Poshteh, a ruined village near the crew's campsite, who will only return in echo the words "hello" and "goodbye". There are also several takes of scenes from the film within the film reproduced in all their professional monotony. In another scene, Hossein strays into a wood that looks familiar and disturbs the shooting of the crying baby scene from And Life Goes On...
. It's a shock to realise that it is the trilogy viewer's memory of seeing that scene which makes the woods familiar in the first place. We get a glimpse of Babek Ahmed Poor, the lead amateur actor in Friend's House
, looking increasingly like Eric Canton as he nears his teens. All this familiarity with a people and a place that viewers of the entire trilogy have come to know well, softens the austerity of its analytical climax.
Nevertheless, there is some harshness left that is less easily dispelled. To a Westerner's perspective, Hossein's courtship method of wearing down Tahereh's resisitance might well be seen to rely too much on bullying and hectoring. It's a fierce, desperate and relentless tirade, ranging from reverent praise to wounded reproach. It comes from a tradition in which persistence in courtship is as much a virtue as it is in the medieval European Romance, and should be judged accordingly.
- Nick James, Sight & Sound, January 1997.
Back to screening list