If the films of Abbas Kiarostami were to be defined as a reflection of life as art, then how does one explain the Pirandellian interweaving of reality and fiction in Through The Olive Trees (1994)? A director, played by an actor (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz), speaks in aside about a real-life devastating earthquake in rural Iran. The director has returned to the village of Koker to work on a new film (an actual Kiarostami film) entitled And Life Goes On… (1992). The young women have been assembled for an open field casting call. A young woman named Tahereh Ladanian is the first person to catch the director’s eye. The director instructs his assistant, Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), to take down her name and address. Later, we see that the young woman has been cast for the role of a new bride named Tahereh.
Mrs. Shiva drives around the village on the following morning in preparation for the day’s shoot. She offers a ride to the schoolteacher (Astadouli Babani), who had appeared as a teacher in the director’s earlier film (another Kiarostami film), Where is My Friend’s Home? (1987). The schoolteacher is providing the chalk for the clapboard. She then goes to Tahereh’s house, where the stubborn young woman insists on wearing an inappropriate party dress for the shoot. Another stop near the makeshift tent school, and two boys provide houseplants for the exterior shots of the house.
The initial takes of the shoot prove to be a disaster. The leading man, who stutters in the presence of women, is unable to deliver his lines. Mrs. Shiva is asked to bring his replacement, an unemployed mason named Hossein (Hossein Rezai), to the set. The director passes the time with the children who have gathered behind the barricades. It is a scene that alludes to Kiarostami’s documentary, Homework (1989).
The arrival of Hossein proves to be an equally frustrating challenge for the crew. Tahereh refuses to speak to Hossein, and the director sends the actors home in order to assess the situation. Hossein reveals to the director that he has repeatedly proposed to Tahereh, but her family refuses to give their consent. If she would only provide a sign to show how she truly felt about him. Returning to the set on the following day, Tahereh agrees to deliver her lines on-camera, but refuses to acknowledge Hossein off-camera. In between film takes, tea breaks, and reel changes, Hossein seizes the opportunity to apologize for the behavior of his character, and to profess his love to the unreceptive Tahereh. But will Hossein’s dogged persistence win the affections of Tahereh off (or on) camera?
Long, static shots have come to define Kiarostami’s signature ending. For the final image of The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995), Kiarostami, who wrote the screenplay for the film, languidly focuses on a young balloon seller (Aliasghar Smadi) holding a long pole with a single white balloon. In A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997), Mr. Badii’s (Homayon Ershadi) impassive countenance is occasionally revealed in the darkness through periodic flashes of lightning. Does he stay in the hole that he has dug for himself, or does he change his mind and crawl out? The ending remains ambiguous.
Similar to A Taste of Cherry, the final scene of Through the Olive Trees remains unresolved. Hossein, unwilling to accept Tahereh’s continued silence, follows her down the hill, through the olive trees, and into the open field, continuing to plead his case for marriage. The camera lingers as the “couple” are reduced to floating white dots that seem to focus and disperse into the beautiful, earthy landscape. It is a hypnotic reflection of the passage of real time, and we are reminded that we have witnessed one mere episode, one fleeting glimpse, of a wondrous phenomenon called life. In essence, to force the union of these two actors off-camera (that is, within the confines of the film) is to defy reality, to create a work of fiction.
By defining the role of cinema as a chronicle of real life, Kiarostami takes on the role of documenter rather than director. In A Taste of Cherry, Mr. Badii engages in a series of conversations with passengers (or, more appropriately, conducts informal interviews) in search of an assistant. In Through the Olive Trees, it is the director (albeit played by an actor) who conducts the interviews – from the dialogue with Hossein as the director attempts to find the cause for Tahereh’s silence, to the encounter with three generations of provincial women returning from their bath. However, in a seemingly uncharacteristic turn of events, the director steps out of his Kiarostami-defined role of documenter and attempts to direct the off-camera lives of his actors by tacitly encouraging Hossein to follow Tahereh, who has decided to walk home after the shoot. As Hossein incessantly attempts to elicit a response from the silent Tahereh, we see the director surreptitiously follow behind them, as if to assess the result of his directorial intervention.
But does the director’s actions contradict Kiarostami’s own cinematic vision of his role as documenter? Despite the director’s attempt to manipulate their relationship, the off-camera behavior of the actors towards each other remains unchanged. As in life, the fate of the actors is not conveniently resolved within the course of their long walk. In essence, the final scene is a validation of Kiarostami’s ideology, a reflection of truth. It is a visual disconnection from the romantic ideals of the director, to the pragmatic reality of Hossein and Tahereh’s incompatibility. The director, however well intentioned, cannot change the reality of the situation, but can only chronicle the relationship as it truly exists. He attempts to direct, but can only watch from a distance and document.
The films of Abbas Kiarostami continue to spur polarized, impassioned debates. In depicting the everyday lives of ordinary people through mundane conversations and unremarkable actions, he attempts to capture the essence of the human experience in a way that is honest and contemplative. But in the process of conveying life in real-time, his films can also test one’s patience. In Through the Olive Trees, the director shuts off the camera, only to find that the lives of his actors are far more fascinating off-camera than the characters that they portray on-camera. To accelerate this revelation, that is, to cull out the personal observations of the director for the sake of brevity, is to deny human experience. To trivialize its message is to comment on our own insignificance. Should the camera only be used as an instrument of entertainment? Is the wonder of life only worth capturing when there is an audience?