Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian auteur, is a mythic tale told in the simplest terms but containing a complicated concept of suicide possibly alien to both eastern and western cultures. A desperate man bent on committing suicide attempts to enlist the help of someone to make sure he is buried, dead and not alive. Can he find a compassionate man to do him such an unusual favor in exchange for a large monetary reward? A simple idea, almost an Aesopian tale, but one that branches off into complex dimensions and sub-themes relating to the human condition, the legitimacy of the act of suicide, and many other meanings.
A man drives around Tehran, evidently looking for something, although it takes a while before this is revealed. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) is middle aged, looking fairly prosperous, driving a utility vehicle, which, given the environment, seems a luxury. He stops at a construction site, and, without leaving his vehicle, asks a young man for something; the latter shuns him and disappears behind an alley. Badii then accosts another young man carrying plastic bags, which he sells to a recycle factory. He, too, refuses to have anything to do with Badii, who drives on, into the countryside, a red-brownish desert of clay and rock bereft of any green with even the trees looking brown and dead.
The camera never leaves this man in his vehicle, catching his profile at medium close-up, with an occasional overview of the winding dirt road he is traversing toward an unknown destination. His pensive look and nervous surveying of the landscape creates some tension, occasionally interrupted by squadrons of military troops marching up the hill performing drills in short shouting outbursts. Dabii picks up a young soldier who talks little, seemingly intimidated by the driver’s inquiries and searching looks. The young man’s face, always captured in profile, reveals his apprehension and increasing suspicion that he is talking to a madman. We learn that he is a Kurd whose family now lives in Tehran and who prefers to live alone in the barracks. Despite his repeated requests to be taken back to the barracks, Dabii continues to drive on for some distance into the country toward an isolated spot where he shows the young man a hole, located a little off the road and down a slope. The camera is focused on Dabii, earnestly pleading with the young man to come back at six the next morning and throw twenty shovelfuls of dirt over his body, which will be lying in a hole a few feet from where he stands. Then he can take a sizable sum of money left at the site, and run. The hole is not shown to the viewer, who only sees Dabii, standing on the hillside, arguing with the young man. As Dabii re-enters his vehicle, the young man flees in terror down the hillside.
Dabii stops at a cement-making site, and greets a safety guard (an Afghani, one of two million refugees living in Iran), who is cooking a meal. He offers to treat Dabii some tea, but the latter declines. Dabii asks him to go for a drive to escape his loneliness but the Afghani refuses to leave his post. He points to a man sitting at the side of the road, explaining he is a relative, a seminarist visiting him for a few days. Dabii tries to enlist the latter’s services, offering him a ride. The two go off together. The seminarist is also Afghan, having come to Iran to escape the war and find work. He listens politely and patiently to Dabii’s request, with a smile of sympathy and understanding. Dabii explains that he has arrived at the decision to end his life for reasons he does not divulge-they would be of no use to anyone. He needs the seminarist’s hands not his tongue or mind. The word “suicide”, he says, is not just a dictionary term; it has a practical application. God, who put it there, had a reason, which is to free man from pain, and from sin. Because when a man is unhappy, he hurts those near him, and that is a sin. To the seminarist’s objection that he understands Dabii’s pain, Dabii objects that though that may be true he cannot feel his pain. Dabii needs to free himself from the pain, thence the suicide. They arrive at the spot where the hole is and the seminarist steps out of the Range Rover and has a look at it (the viewer still only sees, in a long shot, the side of the cliff). But when he gets into the car, the seminarist, still firm in his beliefs, reminds Dabii of the Koran prohibitions, the injunction that man must not kill. Killing yourself is killing, he states. That ends their conversation.
The next episode is the longest and most complicated. Dabii stops at a cement-producing site where trucks unload their cargoes of rocks and drop them down a cliff into a chute to be crushed into a fine powder. Dabii wearily sits down enveloped in a cloud of dust contemplating a burial, under the falling rocks and debris. Certainly he would not need a helper on such an occasion. A worker, who thinks Dabii is loitering, approaches him and demands that he move his car which is obstructing the work of the digger trucks. In resignation, Dabii obeys. Back in his seat, driving again, he is being addressed by someone inside his vehicle whom the viewer did not see entering. Dabii has already revealed his purpose to him, for the man has already accepted to carry out his wishes. He does however argue against this action, finding it a waste, since life’s problems, he maintains, can always be solved. Soon we see his face, an old wrinkled man’s, with white mustache and hair. Later he is identified as a Turk who works at the natural science museum as a taxidermist, providing quail to be used by students in taxidermy experiments. He stoutly defends life’s preciousness, arguing against the waste of suicide and even giving himself as an example: he once had decided to commit suicide, but, finding himself in a mulberry orchard, he tasted one, and its taste saved him. Later he refers to the taste of cherry as a metaphor for life itself and its sensuous pleasures. But his arguments, strong and earnest, have no effect on Dabii, and the Turk, in need of money for his sick son, promises to bury him, without fail, next morning. However, he refuses to take any money in advance. Dabii drops him at the museum, stopping for a moment to take a snapshot of a young couple. A moment later, Dabii is seen driving back to the museum, running through a crowd to the gate where he is urgently asking for the man who just entered. For the first time he seems tense even excited. He buys a ticket, goes to a lecture hall and sees the man through a glass, hearing him giving instructions to students how to dissect a quail. He is Mr. Bagheri (also the name of the actor playing him), who now wears his white uniform, evidently annoyed by the call that interrupted his lecture. He seems abrupt and uncompassionate, and dryly asks what Dabii wants of him. The latter instructs him that when he comes to bury him next morning to bring two little stones and toss them at him, making certain he is not still alive. Bagheri says he will do this. Dabii then asks him to shake him to be absolutely certain he is not alive. Bagheri promises that only a beheading would prevent him from carrying out what he had promised.
Next morning, in a thunderstorm, Dabii leaves for his burial place. Though we do not see it (we only see him doing something through a window), we assume he has taken his sleeping pills (as he said earlier that he would). He drives to the hills in the dark, interrupted by frequent lightning, sits next to the tree where the hole is then lies into the hole. In the distance, we see the lights of another car coming. In the flashes of lightning, we see Badii’s face, his eyes open. They gradually half-close, then close altogether. The screen goes black, and we only hear the rain coming down. For a few minutes, there is an empty, dark screen. What we see next is a green landscape-the same, now having assumed its natural colors. We hear the shouts of the military squadron marching up the hills. A cameraman appears, then a man with a tripod, then . Kiarostami himself, in his dark glasses, ordering through his walkie-talkie the marching men to sit down under a tree, across the road. Ershadi walks up the hill, evidently relieved from his chores as an actor (and just out of his hole), offering Kiarostami a cigarette. The latter takes it. The shoot is over.
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Despite its minimalist plot, the movie raises a host of questions, most of which center on its most important theme: suicide. Dabii is not a man who has simply decided to take his life; he is one who has embarked on a quest, who is bent on carrying out his decision but is also searching for something undeclared. The objects of his search can be summed up in three questions:
a. Is it or is it not a sin to commit suicide? Can arguments against suicide on the level brought up by Dabii’s opponents be convincing?
b. Can one find a truly compassionate man who will do his fellow human a favor (even for pay), if the latter is in need of one?
c. What is (or are) Kiarostami’s message (or messages) in this film? Do these relate to his general outlook?
The first question (whether it is a sin to commit suicide) is never answered satisfactorily; obviously, this depends on the various characters’ points of view. The Koran (and the Imams) emphatically state no. But despite that injunction, the movie seems to say that suicide remains a legitimate option in human life, and Badii puts forth a tremendous argument: why should one not commit suicide if continued life could only cause pain to self and to others? Thus, subtly, a revolutionary doctrine is espoused, all within the context of the religious and cultural beliefs voiced by Dabii’s several interlocutors. None of them succeeds in convincing him that the pain that he lives in and that he causes is preferable to an eclipse of life. He shakes his head negatively when the Turk (taxidermist) attempts to convince him that life’s pleasures (“taste of cherry”) are so significant that they easily outweigh the pain either caused or suffered. Dabii is emphatic, even somewhat contemptuous of the older and wiser man’s assertion that all one needs, when one is about to hang himself from a tree, is to stumble onto some luscious mulberry, the taste of which will make him hold off from his dramatic step. To Dabii, the reasons for ending his life must be narrower and much deeper. His whole demeanor is one of extreme gravity. This makes him look less enigmatic and much more believable than if he had, for instance, been linked to an invalid mother, sick wife, or dying son. Evidently, he is not on the verge of financial collapse, for the viewer sees him doling out rolls of banknotes, and in the morning he carries a large portmanteau with the 200,000 tomans, a sizable sum of money, he promised the man who would carry out his wishes.
The story also explores the question of compassion and its meanings. How does one-and Dabii in particular-relate to his fellow men? In his brief odyssey he does not find an answer to his quest, and the one who agrees to help him does it for the money or so it seems. Of course, he goes about his search for a compassionate person the wrong way: his first attempt is to offer money; or rather a job with easy money attached to it; naturally, he arouses suspicion. Could he be a criminal, madman, con man, drug-dealer? These factors contribute to his rejection. The young soldier, especially, is terrified of him. Helping a man kill himself is an immoral and irreligious act to these folk. Less afraid, the seminarist still weighs compassion (which he evidently has) against God’s word, being literal. The taxidermist is the most broadminded, and, naturally, the most compassionate of the three. But it is not clear that he accepts the job because of compassion or the need for money; he certainly does not approve of Dabii’s decision to end his life; he neither understands nor sympathizes with Dabii. But he is a man of honor; and not understanding suicide and even being contemptuous of it will not prevent him from carrying out his promise. Thus, man’s duty to his fellow man remains an ambiguous concept.
So does the concept of suicide. This is the beauty of this movie. Kiarostami opens up the eastern (as well as the western) mind for centuries fixated on the idea that it is wrong to commit suicide. Kiarostami’s concept resembles in some ways John Keats’s “negative capability,” a well known literary term used by a poet who imagined his own death. Both the West (Socrates/Bible) and the East (Koran/the Imams) have placed a stern prohibition on the concept of suicide as a legitimate option in human life. Kiarostami’s movie opens up that option and places it under a microscope. Dabii is relentless in not revealing his specific reasons for wanting to end his life. What is important to him is not his reasons for committing suicide, but his desire to do so. It is his desire that must be respected. Though the viewer is not given any actual information, he or she is quite capable of filling in the blanks concerning Dabii’s mysterious decision by just looking at Dabii’s face. A deep despair is printed on it. Neither the youthfulness of the soldier nor the Afghan’s polite offer or the old Turk’s compassion (if genuine) can produce any effect on him. He is determined to carry out his plan though the viewer still hopes he will change his mind at the last moment; that creates suspense, and that is why this movie is so good. It gains an almost Hitchcock-like momentum, though in some ways this is a totally un-Hitchcockian movie. Hitchcock will raise expectations-and then fill them. Kiarostami only plays with levels of reality. What the viewer assumes is a story turns out to be only a movie-within one. Truffaut (Day for Night) and Antonioni (Blow Up) were able to achieve similar effects. Reality is only what we can imagine – the realm beyond the visible and actual world. The artist has the freedom to create, as has the viewer who has had the opportunity to fill in the blanks about a man’s desire to end his life. Not what happens, but why the desire exists becomes the question.