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The Iranian Master Abbas Kiarostami Turned the Cinema Into a Mesmerizing Meditation

The word “cinema” can mean a lot of things, but to a great many people (maybe too many), it now means sitting back and watching visually hypnotic, rhythmically energized, in-your-face stuff all happening right before your childishly privileged eyeballs: superheroes flying and morphing and defying death, gun battles and explosions and spectacularly choreographed vehicular mayhem, animated fairy tales that crackle and dazzle with hyperactive wonder. Yet if American popcorn cinema, in all its entertaining glory and bluster, now goes out to every corner of the globe, and with unprecedented dominance, that doesn’t mean that other states of being can’t loom larger than life in the dark. Over the last 20 years, almost every time you saw a movie by the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who died today, you could feel it calming your appetite for sensation, slowing your attention span and maybe even your heartbeat. You could feel lured into a different state of being.

The movie itself might consist of little more than two people driving around in a car and talking (or not talking for several minutes). Or it might be an existential layer cake of documentary and fiction in which a con artist re-enacts his deception, and the members of the family he tried to hoodwink all play themselves, and the film absorbs you into a place of such deep inquiry and enigma that it turns into a mesmerizing psychological abyss. There is a kind of action that goes on in a Kiarostami film. It’s the profound exchange of energy between the audience and the filmmaker — the action of the inner spirit.

Kiarostami, who began making short films in 1970, completed his first dramatic feature in 1977. But due to the almost complete non-distribution of Iranian films in the U.S. until years after the 1979 revolution, American audiences had no real chance to taste his aesthetic until the mid-’90s, with the all-too-brief appearance in theaters of “Through the Olive Trees,” the final chapter in what became known as the Koker trilogy. It’s telling that the off-screen drama that surrounded the film’s release was so much louder than anything in the movie itself. Made in 1994, “Through the Olive Trees” is a lovely trembling blossom of a film, a leisurely Pirandellian curio about a bricklayer-turned-actor named Hossein Rezai, who portrays himself during the making of Kiarostami’s previous film, “And Life Goes On,” and who pursues the woman of his affection with a nattering insistence that barely turns her head, until (maybe) it does.

The movie was layered and delicate and, in a word, quiet. It needed special tending, but it had been acquired by Miramax, just at the moment when the company was in the midst of transitioning from indie giant that changed the world to crossover mainstream studio. “Through the Olive Trees” was regarded by the critical community as a work of art that got dumped, indifferently, into a merciless marketplace by a company that had its mind on other — bigger — things. The film’s release became a kind of metaphor, a symbol of what Miramax (and, by extension, the new world of indie film) meant and what it didn’t mean. It meant: the new New Hollywood. It didn’t mean: working to create a place for a movie this specialized. There was almost a conspiracy-theory aspect to it, with Harvey Weinstein cast as the crossover King Kong who didn’t care if a frail Iranian flower got squashed.

I won’t defend the way that Miramax released “Through the Olive Trees,” but I will say: The movie could have been presented by David O. Selznick and it probably wouldn’t have done much business. The point being that Kiarostami was a major artist, but one who presented distributors with a unique challenge, because he was a special kind of artist, a tricky and recessive neorealist poet working in a medium ruled, increasingly, by sound and fury. Almost no one saw “Through the Olive Trees,” and what they missed, along with all the film-within-a-film gamesmanship, is a lyrically anti-romantic love story that ends on a note of wistful connection.

You could say that the elusiveness of human connection was Kiarostami’s theme. The quietude of his films was often ascribed to the fact that he had to conceive and direct them from within the restrictions of the Iranian regime. They had to speak between the lines. But the result was a cinema of people who seemed to be circling each other’s souls, often from a great distance. “Taste of Cherry,” the 1997 film that was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, marked Kiarostami’s official entry into the pantheon of world-cinema giants, and it was a work of stunning devastation, the story of a middle-aged man (Homayon Ershadi) driving around Tehran looking for someone to help him commit suicide (an act forbidden under Islam), for reasons he never states out loud. The drama is wedded to that lack of explanation. He picks up several prospective candidates, none of whom shows much desire to sign on, and their conversations have a disarmingly forthright macabre casualness.

To be or not to be? “Taste of Cherry” suggests how close to despair ordinary life can take us — in Iran, or perhaps everywhere. Despite its accolades, and despite a far more friendly and attentive distribution, the film didn’t find an American audience much beyond the one that saw “Through the Olive Trees.” But it was enough to make Kiarostami, with his warm smile and omnipresent sunglasses (a ’60s/art/cool “I see too much not to shield my vision” holdover from the days of Godard and Antonioni), an iconic figure. Yet it wasn’t his masterpiece.

That would be “Close-Up,” the film he’d made in 1990 that, to this day, has barely been distributed in the United States. Yet it’s a staggering achievement, and — ironically — a far more accessible one than the Kiarostami films that have actually played here. “Close-Up” tells the story of a poor man named Hossain Sabzian, who impersonated the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, conning an entire family into believing that they could star in a new film he was making. What pushes him to orchestrate this deception, while never definitively stated (are you sensing a motif here?), can be described as a kind of grand-scale cinephilia run amok. I pretend to be Makhmalbaf…therefore I am. The film presents a society that encourages the taking on of identity precisely because of how much it takes away identity. In following how these events played out, Kiarostami created a stunning work of meta-suspense: It’s like a courtroom thriller, a Patricia Highsmith novel, and a documentary about the hidden desperation of Iranian society all wrapped up into a meditation on the metaphysics of personality.

To say that “Close-Up,” one of the most profound and fascinating films of its time, remains a footnote even in the experience of art-house patrons is to say that Kiarostami, for all the extraordinary films he created, never had the international moment he could have. (The triumph of “Taste of Cherry” at Cannes made him a critic’s darling, but that’s something else.) Yet starting in 2010, when political pressures encouraged him, for the first time, to begin making films outside Iran, his career entered a new phase, and it was a surprisingly seductive one. If you want to see a Kiarostami film that has his meditative magic, but also suggests what it might have looked like had he broken through to a new international style, watch “Certified Copy.” It’s a movie built around a highly original structural conceit: Juliette Binoche, radiant in her force and distress, and William Shimell, all dodgy intellectual fervor, play a couple wandering around a Tuscan village, and for a while we can’t figure out whether they’ve just met or are at the end of their relationship, and that’s because the answer is…both at once. Kiarostami mixes the two realities without telling us, and the result begins to feel like Eric Rohmer on peyote, as it builds toward a climax of tormented devotion. “Certified Copy,” though it didn’t get the acclaim it deserved, was his last powerful act of filmmaking, a tale of two people who are trying to figure out whether or not they belong together by literally portraying themselves. It’s quintessential Kiarostami: a tale of love that comes in layers, with several identities, under wraps.

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