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‘Life as Art’ examines movies by late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami

By August 8, 2019 No Comments
Abbas Kiarostami went from illustrating children's books and making commercials to becoming one of the most celebrated Iranian filmmakers in the world. (Photos courtesy of UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive)

On the surface, nothing necessarily dramatic happens in most of Abbas Kiarostami’s movies. Don’t be fooled.

The late, influential Iranian filmmaker’s complex protagonists — a driver on a self-destructive mission in “A Taste of Cherry,” a young boy doing everything in his power to get to a soccer match in “The Traveler” — are on life-changing journeys, steering them to unexpected interior destinations and realizations. As is his audience, wondering where his films are heading. 

To better appreciate Kiarostami’s painter-like style, his poetic ease to express profound issues as well as his reliance on natural sounds instead of thunderous soundtracks, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is hosting the largest retrospective yet of his work, organized by senior film curator Susan Oxtoby. It runs through the end of December.

Many films in this series have been digitally restored with a select few that are part of the BAMPFA’s Wednesday lecture/screening series, from Aug. 28-Sept. 25. Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad, will speak at some lectures.

Kiarostami died in 2016 and has left a rich legacy of influential films, many of which toy with fiction and nonfiction. 

Here are five films not to miss in this series:

“The Traveler” was Kiarostami’s first feature-length film.

“The Traveler”: Kiarsotami ignored W.C. Fields’ advice about working with children and, in fact, often featured young characters as leads. His comfortability with young actors might have been partly due to his experiences as an illustrator of children’s books. In this, his first feature-length debut, he brings an observant eye to the everydayness of Iranian life with a short tale about an unscrupulous young troublemaker Qassem (Hassan Darabi) who is a soccer fanatic swindling his way to get to a match in Tehran. It came out in 1974 and holds up exceptionally well, particularly as a cautionary parable about the hazards of being too self-focused and untruthful. It’s a find. Details: 3:10 p.m., Aug. 28, with a lecture by Ahmad Kiarostami; 4:30 p.m., Sept. 8.

“Where Is the Friend’s Home?” is the first film in Kiarostami’s highly regarded Koker trilogy.

“Where Is the Friend’s Home?”: Kiarostami sticks to children’s perspective in the first of his highly regarded Koker-set trilogy. This is my favorite of the bunch. It’s a tender tale about friendship as Ahmad, a young boy, obsesses about bringing a notebook to the home of his trouble-prone friend who might face expulsion from school due to missed homework. As he did in “The Traveler,” Kiarostami takes a fly-on-the-wall approach as a growing desperate Ahmad (Babek Ahmedpour) valiantly tries to help his pal despite cranky adults standing in his way. This 1987 film is a classic. Details: 6 p.m., Aug. 10; 3:10 p.m., Sept. 11 with lecture with from UC Berkeley senior lecturer emerita Marilyn Fabe; 7 p.m. Sept. 13.

In “And Life Goes On …,” the second film in the Koker trilogy, a filmmaker (Farhad Kheradmand) searches for two young film stars in the aftermath of a massive earthquake in Iran.

“And Life Goes On …”: In the second entry of the Koker trilogy, Kiarostami sprints off into fact/fiction territory, a fusion he explored to great effect. This mature work finds a filmmaker (not played by Kiarostami) and his son (not played by his real son) on a road trip after the devastating 1990 earthquake. They hope to find the two young stars of “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” As one reviewer noted, it is totally meta. It also significantly illustrates Kiarostami’s adoration for wide shots that have little to no dialogue, but big impact. I love the closing sequence, one that would sadly not appear in an American film due to its subtlety. The third film in the trilogy is “Through the Olive Trees.” Details: 6 p.m., Aug. 17; 7 p.m., Sept. 20.

The Cannes award winner “Taste of Cherry” finds a suicidal man traveling the countryside.

“Taste of Cherry”: One of Kiarstomai’s signature storylines was having characters traveling along serpentine roads, mostly in northern Iran. We don’t know much about the ones behind the wheel. But as they interact with others, there’s more here than we expected. Such is the case with this Palme d’Or winner at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Homayoun Ershadi stars as a suicidal man on a mission to find someone to assist him and deposit his body where he wants. “Cheery” is an existential road trip that is moving, even humorous. Details: 3:10 p.m. Sept. 18 with lecture by New York-based filmmaker/critic Godfrey Cheshire; 7 p.m., Nov. 1 without lecture.

“Certified Copy” — Kiarostami’s unpredictable romantic dramedy — won Juliette Binoche the best actress prize at Cannes in 2010.

“Certified Copy”: This later films finds Kiarostami taking a romantic dramedy and upending that genre. It is one of his few films that ventures out of Iran, and is set in Italy. The luminous Juliette Binoche deservedly received a best actress award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. She plays a nameless woman seeking to get autographed copies of a British author’s (William Shimell) book. He opines about what’s real and what’s original, a thought that spurs the film along as the lines blur between what’s real and what’s a copy. It’s a head trip, and while some critics didn’t warm to it, I consider it one of his finest. Details: 6 p.m., Dec. 14.

For tickets, prices and other films screening, visit bampfa.org/program/abbas-kiarostami-life-as-art.