Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s fascination with the overlap between cinema and reality provides a surprising backdrop to a touching courtship in “Under the Olive Trees.” Highly specialized item should tap his growing international arthouse following, with Miramax releasing the pic in the U.S.
Pic is the third installment in the director’s cycle of sublimely simple films set in northern Iran, which began with “Where Is My Friend’s Home?” Second pic, “And Life Goes On,” returned to the locations of “Home” on the pretense of shooting a documentary about the devastating earthquake that took thousands of lives in the area.
In “Olive Trees”– a film more focused than “Life,” which it resembles in many ways — a film crew travels to the same zone to shoot a fictional film. Much of the story falls into the genre of movies about making movies. The twist is that from the opening scene the “director” (played by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) tells the camera he’s an actor, and the only professional one the audience will see in the film. By the next scene, in which Keshavarz chooses a young heroine from a sea of country girls dressed in long Iranian garb, the line between fiction and documentary is already beginning to blur.
This game would soon grow tiresome if strong characters didn’t quickly come to the fore. The first to emerge is Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), a tough-as-nails assistant director who keeps the actors in line like a drill sergeant. She argues about the authenticity of the costume with newly chosen leading lady Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), whose parents died in the earthquake, like many others whom the “filmmakers” meet.
When a young man chosen to play a simple role proves a disaster, the director tells Mrs. Shiva to rehearse one of the local crew members, Hossein (Hossein Rezai), for the part. But there’s a jinx in this choice, too: Hossein has been courting Tahereh but has been refused because he’s illiterate and doesn’t own a house. The girl, confusing reality with the dialogue she’s been given, refuses to say hello to him, as the script calls for.
Hossein confesses his torment to the kindly director in a moving scene that owes its conviction to the boy’s non-acting. It’s easy to imagine that the real-life Hossein believes that the poor and illiterate, like himself, should marry a spouse who can read and write; otherwise, neither will be able to help their kids when they go to school. (Kiarostami explored the same problem in his docu “Homework.”)
Rather than replace the actors, the director changes the script, so Hossein and Tahereh play newlyweds who got married the day after the earthquake. Hossein is simply stunning in his long and oft-repeated shot full of dialogue, which he delivers like a pro. But Tahereh, obstinate about realism, again can’t bring herself to say the dialogue, and the director again is forced to give in and change his film.
Pic concludes with one of Kiarostami’s trademark long shot/long takes, which captures the simple philosophy behind the film, magically giving the audience a moment of contact with a universal human experience.
Pic’s minimal action may put some of the audience to sleep, but it is a risk Kiarostami seems prepared to take. Stripping down the story to the essentials, he makes every detail count. Pic communicates a strong feeling of love for this remote rural land and its afflicted population, whose will to pick up their lives after the earthquake has something heroic about it.
Rather than explore the fiction/reality/documentary conundrum abstractly, as many other films have done, “Olive Trees” uses its naive, non-pro actors to draw a straight line between the audience and the real-life inhabitants of the area. The power of the film lies in the masterful way this is accomplished.
Kiarostami must have lensed the film with a skeleton crew, much the way his director does on screen. He wrote, produced and edited himself, while there is no art direction or even music, outside the final scene.