SAN FRANCISCO — Iranian movies still seem like exotic territory to many Americans, but they have a steadily growing audience thanks to their penchant for touching, compassionate stories about characters and situations recognizable around the globe.
The filmmaker most responsible for Iranian cinema's renown is Abbas Kiarostami, who earned praise for gentle dramas like "And Life Goes On" and "Through the Olive Trees" before winning the Cannes filmfest's coveted Golden Palm Award for "Taste of Cherry," an exquisitely filmed meditation on life, death, and the search for meaning in a frequently uncaring world.
Kiarostami is back on American screens this season with "The Wind Will Carry Us," his most beautiful and challenging film to date. Its beauty comes from its engaging portrait of villagers leading quiet lives amid the unassuming riches of the Iranian countryside. Its challenge comes from Kiarostami's belief in what he calls an "unfinished cinema" that refuses to tie cinematic stories - or human experience - into neatly wrapped packages, leaving deliberate gaps in the narrative to allow each audience member to perceive it in a unique way.
The main character of "The Wind Will Carry Us" is a filmmaker who visits a small town to document a funeral rite that will take place after the death of an ailing old woman. But the woman has too much life in her to die on schedule, so the filmmaker is stuck in the village much longer than expected - chatting with local citizens, hanging out with a ditch-digger whose face is never seen, and racing his car to a distant hilltop to answer his cellphone. The movie draws much of its power from the subtle tension between his modernized mentality and the more tranquil rhythms of his rural environment.
Viewers familiar with Kiarostami's work will spot one of his trademarks in this new picture: a car threading its way along a narrow road as we hear the conversation taking place inside. Car-seat conversations occur frequently in his films, and people were eager to ask about this during his visit to this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, where he received the prestigious Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement.
"People who like my films and people who don't like my films ask me that: 'How long do we have to watch people driving?' " he said with a smile when the subject arose at a press conference. "But a great deal of my life seems to be spent in cars. I find it a good place to think about things, so a lot of my films are written as I drive.... I also enjoy giving rides to strangers and establishing dialogue with them. An automobile is a very private space. Because you don't know them - and you're seeing them in profile, not face to face - people open up very quickly. A car is a very interesting contraption, not just a mode of transportation."
Iranian movies tend to steer away from violence and other forms of sensationalism that predominate in Western films. While this has deep roots in Persian and Islamic culture, it's also fostered by government censors. Speaking privately with Kiarostami the next day, I asked whether the threat of censorship had influenced his films.
"It's a difficult question," he answered. "I have been sensitive to this, and it has influenced my work to a certain extent. But my films have escaped the sharp censorship scissors ... probably because [they were so subtle that] the censors did not quite understand what they should censor.... If a censor cuts some parts of a film, then those parts should have been cut, because he understood them."
In a 1995 statement written for the 100th anniversary of filmmaking, Kiarostami described his "unfinished cinema" as a style that deliberately leaves out story information so that "the creative spirit of the audience" will come into play, allowing a slightly different movie to exist in the mind of each viewer. Although this can be discombobulating, he believes it is the wave of the moviegoing future.
"With most films," he explains, "viewers with different tendencies come out of the theater with the same experience. I believe a viewer can participate by identifying his own world within a film. Therefore everything should not be made clear, and there should be holes for the viewer to fill in. Today's cinema has accustomed the viewer to knowing everything, but I like a film that I can complete with my mind. The cinema of the future is a cinema of the viewer and the director. The two will be making the film together."
Kiarostami is a respected landscape photographer as well as a movie director, and he is expanding into digital-video production with his latest project, a United Nations-sponsored documentary made in Uganda to focus attention on the AIDS crisis in that region. He is very enthusiastic over the artistic possibilities of new video technologies, praising the intimacy and immediacy they provide.
But he isn't likely to abandon old-fashioned film anytime soon, since its precision and depth contribute to the sense of lifelike authenticity he values so highly. "The cinema is a window into our dreams," he wrote in his 1995 statement. His own cinema proves that the dreams of the artist and the realities of the audience can combine in creative ways that other directors would do well to learn from.
*Films by Kiarostami are available on home video from Facets Multi-Media (www.facets.org) and other outlets.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society