The Criterion Odyssey
Where Is the Friend’s House?
Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Babek Ahmedpour, Ahmed Ahmedpour, Kheda Barech Defai, Iran Outari
Cinematography: Farhad Saba
Release: February 1987
It’s oddly fitting that “Where Is the Friend’s House?” begins Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy – it tells a simple story as simply as possible… one would never imagine that it would spark a series of films with multiple timelines, complex mythology and two actors playing variations on Kiarostami himself. I love that kind of meta stuff myself, but this film has no interest in it. Instead, it sets up what will be the emotional recurring throughline of all three – people going out of their way to help those they do not need to.
Here that person is Ahmed, played by Babek Ahmedpour… who has to be one of the most adorable child actors in cinema history. During a regular day at school, he watches his friend Mohamed (Ahmed Ahmedpour) be berated by their Teacher (Kheda Barech Defai) simply because Mohamed forgot his notebook. The Teacher threatens expulsion if it happens again… and that day after school Ahmed finds Mohamed’s notebook in his backpack. Well… fuck.
Thus begins an odyssey to return said notebook to Mohamed. But “Where Is the Friend’s House?” has no interest in cooking up silly, unrealistic plot complications to keep the two boys apart for the running time. Here the obstacles are grounded. Realistic. A mother who doesn’t understand the severity of the situation. Several trips up and down Kiarostami’s iconic zig-zag hill. A man who creates doors but doesn’t have the bandwidth to listen when a kid asks him a question repeatedly.
Ahmed never wavers for a moment in his insistence that this is a life or death situation for him. He often repeats simple phrases a dozen or more times, all the while Babek’s big, adorable eyes scream “Why don’t you just understand?!” There’s a moment where one of Ahmed’s Grandfather’s friends insists on tearing a page out of the notebook to use for himself, and the amount of stress you see covering the little actor’s face is palpable… you half expect him to pass out because of the tension.
That scene with the Grandfather (Rafia Difai) is one of Kiarostami’s few missteps in a film that is otherwise a masterpiece. Though his fans would become used to the master’s detours from the main character’s journey in the rest of his oeuvre, the moment Kiarostami abandons Ahmed’s point-of-view and sticks with the grandfather, the movie loses some of its tension and build. Yes, I understand that Kiarostami was attempting to take a step back and make a social commentary in that moment, but it doesn’t work, nor does the Grandfather’s insistence that beatings are good for kids.
That said, the rest of the movie? Aces. I love the way Kiarostami almost takes the film into slapstick territory at moments – after following a man he suspects is Mohamed’s father miles on foot, he arrives at the man’s house and spies the man’s son… who’s head is covered by a small door he is holding. Kiarostami plays the moment out far past where it should end, with his father and then a nearby horse also obfuscating Ahmed’s view until we finally see… it’s not Mohamed. The moment is so perfectly pitched it could make Chaplin jealous.
It also doesn’t overstay its welcome. At less than an hour-and-a-half, Kiarostami comes in, makes his points narratively and thematically, and bows out before you get bored with complications upon complications. He also ends “Where Is the Friend’s House” with one of those perfect movie moments… in fact every film in this trilogy ends similarly, not in what we are seeing but how it makes us feel. And let me tell you, when I saw that flower in the notebook, my heart just about exploded.
And Life Goes On
Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Farhad Kheradmand, Buba Bayour
Cinematography: Homayun Payvar
Release: September 1992
Okay, so stick with me here. That movie we just discussed, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” Well, in “And Life Goes On,” that film’s Director (Farhad Kheradmand), who may or may not be modelled on Kiarostami, brings his Son (Buba Bayour) on a desperate trek to Koker. Why desperate? That entire area of Iran was recently levelled by an earthquake that killed 30,000 people, and the Director is trying to get there to see if the brothers who played the friends in “Where Is the Friend’s House?” survived the quake.
Your mind is probably reeling upon reading that premise, and Kiarostami takes his time revealing that this is what the movie is really about. I had never seen any of these films prior to getting the boxed set, and didn’t even read the back of the disc before putting it in, so when the Director produces a poster for “his” film, goosebumps immediately covered my body and I did a little dramatic gasp alone on my couch. It was very dignified.
Though the premise is ostensibly the film’s major selling point, this connection with the previous movie in the trilogy is not its soul. Just the opposite – strip away the “Where Is the Friend’s House?” of it all and the film would still be a powerful examination of a people who have just experienced the unthinkable. It has been five days since the earthquake, and sometimes Kiarostami simply plants his camera and drinks in the devastation, which is vast and excruciating to see. We are so numbed to event movies showing natural disasters with no consequence that actually witnessing the realistic aftermath is even more impactful. Kiarostami shot the film almost a year after the actual earthquake, and how odd must it have been for the area to have to set debris all around their homes and towns once more, tearing open those old wounds.
Back to the fact that the film takes place five days after the earthquake… short enough that the world is still a wreck around the survivors but long enough that they can form coherent sentences to ponder their grief. A mother does her wash for her two sons despite having lost her daughter… because she must. A woman looks for a teapot in her broken home, one which holds the body of her husband in its rubble, because she must drink. A young man speaks of how he lost 65 (!!!) relatives in the quake but got married the day after anyway, because he had to. Because life goes on. And if these people allowed the grief to overwhelm them, they could lose their other loved ones, or their own lives. Much is made of a sports playoff taking place that night, and a community of those who lost their homes and now live in tents still find a way to set up an antenna so they can watch the event.
Kiarostami takes his time exploring the different characters the Director happens upon during his trek. Though pressed for time, Kiarostami has several ingenious plot developments to keep things moving slowly. First and foremost is the landscape itself – the world is filled with holes in the earth, broken roads and dead ends. Second is the Director’s car, which is constantly needing water to avoid overheating. This allows for a quiet, relaxed pace as we contemplate those surviving in this world that is half familiar and half alien to them. Many of these one-on-one conversations between the Director (or his son) and the men & women hit you emotionally. Others, unfortunately, come across a little too much like listening to “This American Life” on NPR, with the Director asking questions that seem nonsensical, or nailing a metaphor home even though it’s definitely not the time for it. When that young man talks about managing to get some tomatoes on his wedding night, we understand that this is his wedding banquet – the Director doesn’t have to rub it in.
Though even as I write that, I must wonder if it’s Kheradmand’s delivery of the dialogue or the dialogue itself. “Where Is the Friend’s House?” was grounded by Babek’s performance, which you could not look away from. And the third film in the trilogy, “Through the Olive Trees,” has a great performance by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz. And though Kheradmand is fine, he doesn’t offer up the kind of emotion or resonance I wanted for the central character, which is a damn shame considering the excellence around him.
Though the zig-zag hill makes a small cameo in “And Life Goes On,” all sequels must be bigger than the original (that was my sarcastic voice), so Kiarostami frames his finale on a mountain with a zig-zag road leading up it. I’ve read and watched in the special features that many consider the ending ambiguous… a reading I fundamentally don’t understand. Someone literally tells the Director character that the two boys are alive and just up the road with an oil lamp. He follows the road, doesn’t get up the mountain but spies two boys in profile at the top of the mountain carrying an oil lamp. The entire film has been grounded to this point, with no magical realism, so one can assume we can trust what we see. The music, also, supports this. Do viewers need to be spoon fed a happy ending so obviously? Really? I mean, really? The ending is so powerful because it hints at the happy ending without being explicit. That “ambiguous” word gets thrown around a lot for the final shot of “Through the Olive Trees” too, so get ready.
Through the Olive Trees
Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Hossein Rezai, Zarifeh Shiva
Cinematography: Hossein Jafarian
Release: May 1994
Okay guys, ready to pull away another layer of that onion? “Through the Olive Trees” takes place behind the scenes during the making of “And Life Goes On.” Our Director (another Kiarostami stand-in played by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) notes that one of the PAs on the set named Hossein (Hossein Rezai), who also has a small role in the film, is in love with another one of the actors (Tahereh Ladanian), though she won’t give him the time of day, speak to him or respond to his repeated marriage proposals. Worse, they play a married couple in “And Life Goes On,” and she’s flubbing scenes because it’s awkward. Is it because she really loves Hossein, or just hates him?
While both “Where Is the Friend’s House?” and “And Life Goes On” are imperfect, I would say that I love both of them. And while I enjoyed “Through the Olive Trees” a lot, I would not go so far as to say I love it. There are amazing, wonderful things in it, make no mistake, but there are two things that keep me from planting my flag and shouting my adoration from the rooftops.
Here’s the first. While the first two films were closely interconnected, you did not have to watch one to completely immerse yourself in the other. The fact that it was meta certainly added a layer of power to the viewing experience, but take it away and they are both still powerful. Here, I feel like “Through the Olive Trees” leans on that nostalgia just a little too hard – I wonder if I would have liked it as much had I not been excited to see Babek again, or watch one of my favorite scenes from “And Life Goes On” being shot, and so on. Maybe? But maybe not.
The second thing is the characterization of Tahereh. Because she is so resistant to his advances, she comes across as fully not interested, even for a moment. And the only interest she showed Hossein took place off camera and is spoken of from his point of view. I am certain that Kiarostami did not mean for it to come across this way (and I am also thinking that it may be a cultural difference), but Hossein comes across like a stalker in several scenes or sequences.
Recalibrate Tahereh just a smidgen. Give her some looks, or sexy stares with Hossein, or anything else, and I wouldn’t have had this problem. But alas, here we are.
That said, I wanted to get those two major problems out of the way first so I could focus on what worked, which is most everything else. There’s a conversation that Hossein has with the Director in the back of a moving truck where he so beautifully articulates his views on love, life and class that I was moved to tears. And while the plot hinges on Hossein’s love connection, the main character is the Director – who questions Hossein, tells him to move forward then, at the finale, essentially says “Go get that girl!” without leaning into the romantic movie cliché of it all. Keshavarz gives a marvelous, humane performance throughout, and I loved how he was always searching for… something… with his eyes.
I also want to bow down in praise of Zarifeh Shiva as the long-suffering producer who both has to cater to the Director’s whims while also keeping the ship sailing on budget. The patience she shows people when I would just want to scream “Get it together!” is marvelous, and the way you can see her swallowing her real feelings offers up some great scene work.
Then there’s the end, which again has been called ambiguous even though it’s not. From the top of the zig-zag hill (aww… there it is again!), we watch as Hossein desperately follows Tahereh through the olive trees into a field, begging her for a word… only a word… We see her stop, turn, ostensibly say a word, and then Hossein runs off in joy back across the field, at one point tripping over himself. The music is triumphant. Nothing in Hossein’s character to that point indicates that he would run off after getting bad news… he would definitely stand there with his shoulders slumped, Charlie Brown style. Once again, the answer as to what we are seeing is fully clear, and to pretend otherwise is just silly. Oh well, I guess critics and scholars need to pay rent too, and 10,000 extra words about an ambiguous ending even though it’s not ambiguous could help pay for November.
Put together, these are three films I’ll treasure. I began this 2019 Criterion Odyssey with Kiarostami’s last work, “24 Frames,” and am ecstatic that I’ve had the chance to visit more of his films before the year is up. This is an absolute must-buy for all Criterion collectors.
Cover: With apologies to artist Eric Skillman, the individual covers to the three films and the overall cover are so damn boring. I can’t imagine anyone walking past this at Barnes and Noble and being drawn to it, and while I appreciate the visual way he interprets the zig-zag hill on the covers, I do not think he succeeded. Like, at all.
I award it one smashed flower out of five.
Essay: Godfrey Cheshire is a good writer, and I’ve enjoyed reading several of his essays in the past and watching him on various special features. But this lengthy booklet is not good. To someone who has never watched the movies, it spoils the fuck out of every film, and if you have watched them, you become bored because it comes across more as a recap than as an analysis. Interesting ideas, like the negative feedback in Iran to “And Life Goes On” are introduced and then dropped immediately without being expanded on. What a pity.
I award it one-and-a-half warm bottles of Coke out of five.
Extras: Let me take a deep breath…
- There’s a super interesting but really, Really, REALLY depressing 90-minute documentary by Kiarostami called “Homework,” which takes a deep dive into Iranian teaching practices. Looking at the home life of many of the children will leave you with a sour taste in your mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy I watched it, but I’m never going to watch it again. Like, ever.
- An audio commentary for “And Life Goes On” by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, which is a great listen and highly recommended as a way to get into Kiarostami’s mind and work ethic. Oh, how I wish Criterion would do more commentaries like this one!
- A documentary called “Truths and Dreams” which covers the same area many other extras do, but not as well. Skippable.
- Ahmad Kiarostami is back (he was also interviewed for “24 Frames”) to talk about the trilogy and his father, and this connection between the two is quite clear throughout, especially considering that two of the three films focus primarily on child protagonists.
- Cheshire has a conversation with Jamsheed Akrami, which is solid-if-unspectacular. Cheshire comes across much better here than in his essay and Akrami impresses more than he did in the extras of “24 Frames,” where he didn’t even get the film title right.
- An interview between Kiarostami and Peter Scarlet, which is essential in all the ways. Hearing the master speak is always a joy.
- Finally, an interview with Hamid Naficy which I was expecting to be bored during, but it’s actually quite fun and gives some great insight into the trilogy. Highly recommended.
I award it five flower pots out of five.
Up Next: “Fists in the Pocket.”