Carrying away a large part of the critics at Venice, “The Wind Will Carry Us” takes the refined work of Iranian helmer Abbas Kiarostami up another notch to ever more metaphoric ground, where the vibrant colors of nature battle bones from a cemetery in a subtle personal debate about the value of being alive. The first film he has produced himself (with Marin Karmitz) and his first since “Taste of Cherry” won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1996, this is not a movie for everyone (like the director’s other work, pic requires a serious investment of attention). It should nevertheless please his ready-made audience of international fans and do similar business to “Cherry,” especially if a major prize is forthcoming at Venice.
Here Kiarostami leaves behind not only the well-trodden paths of Iranian films-in-a-film but universal filmmaking conventions, allowing this fluid picture to slide many key faces and events offscreen, where viewers do their own “filming.” Unexpectedly humorous, story opens with a jeep full of wisecracking city slickers tooling up mountain roads of breathtaking beauty in Iranian Kurdistan, looking for a remote village. They are met by a young boy who becomes the guide of a tight-lipped “engineer” (Behzad Dourani) and who shows him and his two assistants (remarkably, never framed in the movie) to their rooms. What they have come to do, no one knows.
The engineer’s morbid interest in a dying old woman (never seen) and his daily phone calls to a lady who seems to be directing the “operation” lead one to believe he is interested in the real estate that Mrs. Malek will soon be leaving behind. The locals, instead, think he and his crew are archaeologists hunting for buried treasure.
Day after day, he inquisitively studies the ancient, vertically constructed village, meeting the locals. The filmmaker’s affection for these hardy mountain folk, busy scraping together a meager existence, is never mawkish. A tea shop lady insists that all women serve others in “three jobs,” house, work and bed; a pregnant woman who is hosting the men gives birth overnight to her 10th child and is back at work in the morning. Largely offscreen are the menfolk, working the fields to earn a year’s living in three months. Most moving of all is the boy whom the engineer slyly befriends to get a daily health report on Mrs. Malek. He is overwhelmed with studying for exams, doing chores for his mother and helping out in the fields.
Pic’s running gag is the engineer’s cell phone, which rings at all the wrong moments, causing him, like a trained dog, to leap into his jeep and take off full speed for a distant cemetery on a hill, the only spot that receives signals. The oft-repeated shot of his winding ride, similar to one Kiarostami used in “Through the Olive Trees” to signify the triumph of the human spirit, here conveys the stubborn foolishness of modern man.
It is on the hill that the engineer has daily talks with a man he (and we) cannot see, digging a hole in the ground for “telecommunications.” Later the man’s fiancee, a village girl, milks a cow for him in a pitch-black basement; it’s an eerie scene in which once again neither we nor he get a glimpse of what we most want to view.
All these empty spaces in the film draw the viewer into the picture in a novel way, creating curiosity, mystery and longing for the missing images and demanding, somehow, that audiences fill in the blanks. The most striking absence in this sense is the grand event the men have come for, the death of Mrs. Malek. Its significance is revealed halfway through the film by the village teacher, who guesses the men’s visit is concerned with “the ceremony,” a macabre village mourning rite.
Life and death are finally the film’s basic themes, as recounted not only in the story’s events but in the poems the characters recite to one another, works ranging from Omar Khayyam to the modern poet Forough Farrokhzad. Kiarostami subtly invites the viewer to turn away from the road to the cemetery and stop to enjoy the fruit in the “strawberry fields” (pic’s working title) or, as Omar Khayyam suggests, to prefer wine and the present to fine promises of a future paradise. This is bold thinking for an Iranian film, and, if it took three years for “Taste of Cherry” to be released domestically, this one may also have a rocky road ahead.
As usual, Kiarostami works with a non-pro cast, except for Dourani, his amusing hustler-hero who slowly develops something resembling a conscience over the course of the film. “Am I a bad man?” he suddenly asks, and the little boy’s “No!” reassures him. Sumptuous lensing in the village of Siah Dareh and its surrounding fields and mountains by cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari offers visual testimony of life’s wondrous beauties and pleasures.