[28 August 2014]
Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us is a study in subverted expectations, undermining the viewer’s perception of what makes a movie satisfying, or to some degree even enjoyable. Along the way, the Iranian director provides us with different kinds of enjoyment, and, perhaps, a different degree of satisfaction. Such judgments are very much in the eye of the viewer, however, and many will come away from this unusual film with a bemused shrug or rueful shake of the head.
The plot is minimal. A trio of strangers arrives at a small Iranian village, their purpose unclear at first. Only one of the three, referred to by the villagers as “the engineer”, is ever shown onscreen. He carries a portable phone that rings periodically with messages from his superiors in Tehran; its poor reception necessitates his leaving the village every time it rings, so as to drive to the top of a nearby hill. This conceit, humorous at first, grows a bit tired.
At the top of the hill, which also doubles as a graveyard, the engineer strikes up an acquaintance with an unseen figure who is digging a ditch. As time goes on, he gets to know other villagers as well, mainly through elliptical conversations. Some of these conversations are quite droll; his friendship with a young boy is charming without being cloying.
The subversion of viewer expectations starts early. The engineer’s mission in the village is revealed only incrementally and requires the viewer to fill in many gaps. There are few dramatic incidents, and the one which is expected to happen seems as if it will never take place after all. The newcomer’s motivations remain as hidden from the audience as from the villagers he lives among. In the last ten minutes of the film something obviously important take place, but his response to this event is not what one might expect. Then the movie ends.
Performances are universally strong, as often seems to be the case in cinema from Iran (or, indeed, much of the rest of the world). Naturalistic performances have been drawn out of a variety of actors and actresses, many of whom were non-professionals, and in fact played the type of village characters portrayed in the film. There are no capped teeth or Botox-injected faces here.
The cinematography is also striking, lingering as it does on the lush Iranian countryside, its colorful mountain ranges and cultivated fields, all illuminated with bright splashes of sunlight. The DVD transfer is crisp and lovely, but these images also serve to emphasize the isolation of the place, its distance from the urban landscapes that occasionally intrude into conversation. Even more significant is the director’s use of long takes and long shots. Often, the characters crucial to a scene are barely discernible in the surrounding landscape or village, their faces invisible, their only presence as voices on the soundtrack.
This is especially true in the opening sequence, in which the new arrivals travel by car through the fields, seeking the village. The vehicle is shown from a distance, the actors’ voices arguing about where to turn as they drive though the endless rolling landscape. The banter is quite entertaining, but the scene goes on and on for nearly five minutes—an eternity onscreen. When the car does finally arrive at its destination and the men get out, the camera is so far away that nothing more than their tiny silhouettes is discernible. Of the three, only the engineer is ever shown clearly throughout the entire movie. His companions are never seen, nor is the ditch-digger, or a girl he buys milk from (a scene to which the film owes its title), or any number of other characters.
The movie isn’t for everyone, then, as it routinely shuns expectations both minor—such as providing a clear view of who is talking to whom, and how they respond, and so forth—and major, such as what exactly the main character wants in the village, and whether or not he gets it. This truly is a movie in which “the journey is the destination”, in which the protagonist’s time spent with apparently minor characters is, in fact, more important than the whether or not he meets his goals, which in any case are left vague. Needless to say, such ambiguity and apparent weakness of purpose will alienate many viewers seeking a clearer narrative arc.
The significant extra consists of a 90-minute interview with director Kiarostami at Indiana University, which is engaging enough, as he is an interesting and well-spoken gentleman. The interview ranges over a variety of subjects from early Iranian cinema to his personal experiences as a director to his aesthetic philosophy, and Kiarostami finds enlightening things to say about most of them. Much of the conversation focuses on The Wind Will Carry Us in particular; it is, however, likely to be of interest only to viewers who are already fans of his work and this film. As mentioned above, that’s not likely to be everybody.
For the viewer who is a fan, however, this is a terrific offering and another strong product from Cohen Media, a label that has released numerous powerful films in recent years (The Attack and Queen Margot among them). While not quite as reputable The Criterion Collection, Cohen is doing its best to release lesser-known but interesting films from around the world, such as The Wind Will Carry Us. Here’s hoping that they continue to do so.