Filmed with the piercing intensity of a parable, Iranian helmer Abbas Kiarostami's "The Taste of Cherries" follows a desperate man on the verge of suicide who seeks someone willing to bury him discreetly. One of the director's darkest and most personal movies, the story has a bleak premise that is at least partially turned around by another character's persuasive argument that the sensations of nature can console people. On the plus side for arthouse distribs is the fact that pic is much more linear and accessible than most of Kiarostami's work, auguring wider audiences. On the downside, the storyline is so emotionally engrossing that pic's abrupt, cerebral ending pulls the audience up short and will leave many disappointed. Unshaven and despairing, the middle-aged Mr. Badii (Homayon Ershadi) cruises the streets in his Range Rover, checking out able-bodied men. To several he offers a ride, a job, money, but they are wary of taking candy from this stranger. Giving a lift to a young soldier from Kurdistan, he heads out into the mountains. The recruit begins to suspect the worst.
Pulling up beside a lone tree in a rocky desert landscape where he has dug a shallow grave, Mr. Badii reveals his wishes. The boy is to return at dawn: If Badii is still alive, the recruit should help him out of the grave; otherwise, he should bury him. The boy takes to his heels.Badii then tries to persuade a young Afghan seminarian to do the deed, but gets a standard sermon about suicide being against God’s will. Finally, he picks up an old Turkish man whose son is ill and who agrees to Badii’s request. But as he drives the man to work, the taxidermist asks him to take a longer, scenic road. During the ride, he tells Badii about his own attempted suicide. When Badii leaves the barren mountainside, the scenery changes: Trees appear and bird songs are heard, offering hope of a happy ending. Badii’s intentions seem to waver and the next scenes leave it open as to whether he take his life. Kiarostami throws a perplexing curveball here. Instead of finishing Badii’s story, pic’s final scene — shot in video to announce it is outside the narrative — shows the actor walking away while Kiarostami and his crew wrap up the shoot on the mountain. A trumpet intones the mournful notes of “St. James Infirmary,” hinting that death has passed by; a platoon of soldiers jogs up the hill, recalling the three wars mentioned in the film (Iraq, Afghanistan, the struggles of the Kurds). While the device of upfronting the film crew is one of the director’s favorites, and sidesteps the banality of showing Badii’s choice, its use here seems a bit gratuitous and impersonal. Actor Ershadi is restrained but intense as the would-be suicide, whose motives are wisely never explained. In any case, there is enough poverty, unemployment and talk of war to suggest any number of compelling reasons for making a quick exit. They are brushed in with the lightest of strokes. Ditto the understated pro-life philosophy of Abdolrahman Bagheri as the old taxidermist, who believes that nature’s bounty and beauty make life worthwhile. Cinematographer Homayon Payvar uses an attractive, limited palette of browns and ochers for pic’s desolate backdrop of earth and earth-movers. As usual in Kiarostami’s work, visuals play a subtly symbolic role, like the image of Badii’s shadow being buried under cascades of falling earth from a bulldozer, while dust rises to heaven like fallout from a bomb. Kiarostami cuts the film masterfully, using fable-like story repetitions to underline his points, with just enough variation to avoid dullness. Originally announced for last September’s Venice fest, pic has had a stormy post-production history that culminated in the refusal of Iranian authorities to send it to Cannes, an official veto revoked only at the last minute.