From its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, it was clear how deeply Through the Olive Trees was embedded in the past. It was the third and final part in what has come to be known as the Koker trilogy, the series that, along with Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990), began Abbas Kiarostami’s international legend and which remains his best-loved work.1
The narrative line of the trilogy has gone down in film history, though the writer who tries to describe it is liable to get lost in modifiers and scare quotes.2 Suffice it to say for this note that Through the Olive Trees elaborates on two strands of the central sequence in the previous film, the docudrama Zendegi va digar hich (And Life Goes On, 1991). First, an actor is discussing his crucial role in the first film Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is the Friend’s House?, 1987), and the discrepancy between himself and the older character he played, when the prop he needs is missing. The ‘real’ Kiarostami barks off-screen at an assistant to provide it. In retrospect, we recognise this as a scripted piece of cinematic playfulness, but on a first viewing it shocking, an ontological irruption, a collapse of the secure boundaries between fiction and documentary. Later in the same sequence, the director (played by Farhad Kheradmand) sits by the steps of an abandoned house where a newly married couple have installed themselves. The unemployed and illiterate man playing the husband (Hossein Rezai) turned out to be in love with the woman who played his screen wife, but his affections were not reciprocated.
On the level of narrative, Through the Olive Trees follows the shooting of the newlywed sequence, with Hossein and Farhad reprising their roles — but not, significantly, the actress, a fact that should qualify any attempt to read the film’s closing shot as a ‘happy ending’. Meanwhile, the brief irruption of ‘reality’ into the fiction of As Life Goes On becomes the pretext for a self-reflexive elaboration on the status of screen narrative, documentary, history, landscape, composition, and acting.
Through the Olive Trees thus depends on its relation to the past. It relates to the previous parts of the trilogy, featuring many of the same actors and motifs. It relates to Kiarostami’s earlier works about making images and films, and eliding generic boundaries, such as Tajrobeh (Experience, 1973), Be Tartib Ya Bedun-e Tartib (Orderly and Disorderly, 1981), Mashgh-e Shab (Homework, 1989), and Close-Up. It relates to the recent Iranian past, from the repercussions of the Islamic Revolution to the more recent earthquake. It relates to the structures and motifs of Persian poetry (of which Kiarostami was a noted practitioner), painting and folk theatre, such as frames within frames, formal self-consciousness and narrative distanciation, repetition and pattern; mysticism and allegory; persistent lovers,3 all-consuming love, female resistance, and the power of the gaze; the displacement in narrative of major characters by minor; transformative green spaces, flowers and trees, wind, thresholds, and noble picnics serviced by retainers.4 It relates to the history of cinema, both Iranian (in particular the pre-revolution New Wave committed to neorealist descriptions of ‘ordinary’ life that contested the totalitarian propaganda manufactured by the Shah’s regime), and world cinema. Nassia Hamid rightly protests the colonialist tendency of Western critics to impose Western critical and philosophical models on Iranian film,5 but it must be acknowledged that Kiarostami was an art student in ‘cosmopolitan’, Westernised Tehran during the 1960s, with access to many products of Western culture. It would be absurd to deny the influence of Buster Keaton, Ozu, Tati, or Jerry Lewis, on his framing and long-shot aesthetic, of Rohmer on his philosophical comedy and narrative misdirection, or the subversion of surface reality by Buñuel, whose cowbells signalling psychic disturbance and metamorphosis can be heard at crucial moments of Through the Olive Trees. This fundamental engagement with the past is embodied by the film’s crucial flashback, one of the rare uses of such a scene by Kiarostami.
With hindsight, we can now see how much Through the Olive Trees also pointed to the future, both in Kiarostami’s work and world cinema as a whole. Kiarostami had long been criticised for his portrayal of — or failure to portray — women in his work.6 Through the Olive Trees redresses this with two of the most memorable female characters in film. The silence of Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian) does not denote a lack of voice or agency, but is a weapon of a resistance, a refusal to enter into a verbal narrative that would reduce her to the subordinate role — the beloved, the wooed — in a clichéd courtship narrative, and whose steely determination is demonstrated in the first post-credits scene when she resists Mrs Shiva’s attempt her to wear an outmoded peasant dress and thereby fix her as the projected object of Westernised, orientalist desire. There is even a suggestion that Tahereh has supernatural agency — according to Hossein, her gaze in a cemetery bewitches and negates him; Kiarostami, for all his attention to the ‘real’, has always had a sensitivity to what cannot be seen on the surface, to the uncanny, to inexplicable, life-changing forces.
Mrs Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva) herself is literally the driving force of the production, without whom it would collapse. The long sequences of her simply driving the truck, looking out windows, controlling the camera view and dominating various encounters, all look forward to Kiarostami’s car-confined, female-led Dah (Ten, 2002). The shots where the camera’s view from Mrs Shiva’s driving seat are fractured by a hyperreal, surreal, even unreal image in her wing mirror point to Kiarostami’s later attempts to free the film image from narrative and character motivation. Shots that have more visual autonomy and duration than the complex, viewpoint-laden compositions of previous films, and shots of movement within static frames such as the schoolgirls in black chadors gathering under a tree, look forward to Kiarostami’s future fusions of painting, photography and film, such as Panj (Five, 2003) and 24 Frames (2017). The beautiful shot near the end, where several characters waiting to go home passively watch offscreen chaos, anticipates Shirin (2018), with its female spectators watching an offscreen movie. Such moves would edge Kiarostami, influentially but controversially, towards the artist’s film, and the elite world of the gallery and museum. In Through the Olive Trees, however, the tendencies towards reflexive narrative excess and anti-narrative are kept in exhilarating balance, culminating in one of the most celebrated, yet most enigmatic final shots in modern cinema.
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Through the Olive Trees (1994 Iran/France 103 mins)
Prod. Co: Abbas Kiarostami Productions, CiBy 2000, & Farabi Cinema Foundation Prod: Abbas Kiarostami Dir: Abbas Kiarostami Scr: Abbas Kiarostami Phot: Hossein Jafarian Ed: Abbas Kiarostami Prod. Des: Abbas Kiarostami Mus: Amir Farshid Rahimian & Chema Rosas
Cast: Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, Farhad Kheradmand, Zarifeh Shiva, Hossein Rezai, Tahereh Ladanian, Mahbanou Darabi
- It was also the first Kiarostami film to have a Western producer, aggravating those in Iran who already accused him of making films solely for international festival consumption. ↩
- The clearest and most perceptive guide to the trilogy remains Gilberto Perez, ‘Where is the director?’, Sight & Sound 15.5 (May 2005), pp. 18-22. ↩
- For example, Nizami Ganjavi’s Laili and Majnun (1188) features a lover made mad by unrequited love. The film being watched in Kiarostami’s later Shirin is based on a romance by Nizami. ↩
- See Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis & Sheila R. Canby, The British Museum : Persian Love Poetry (London: British Museum, 2005). ↩
- Nassia Hamid, ‘Near and far’, Sight & Sound 7.2 (February 1997), pp. 22-24. ↩
- Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa writes ‘The rural women in (Kiarostami’s) films…suggest an ideal woman who is innocent, strong, and in tune with nature. Some common representations found in Iranian cinema generally, not only in Kiarostami’s films, are of idealized rural women… (In Through the Olive Trees, Tahereh) never becomes a character. Throughout the film she is treated as a desired woman, quiet and mysterious’. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, 2nd ed. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018), pp. 68-69. ↩