Trapped in a Car Driving Through the Desert with Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘A Taste of Cherry’

Films and filmmaking are means of escape, of breaking free from the world around us. Entrapment, alienation and the role of the outsider are prevalent themes throughout New Wave cinema. As filmmakers sought out contemporary means of expression, their cameras focused on individuals attempting to escape societies’ binds.

The French films of Marker, Goddard and Truffault encapsulate a sense of alienation and entrapment with regards to social norms. The works of Herzog, Fassbinder and Von Trotta in Germany look at a culture that, in the mistreatment of outsiders, is in danger of repeating its terrible past. Decades later, the directors of the Iranian New Wave would examine a post-revolutionary culture where freedoms have been limited for a large portion of the population.

The sensation of being trapped pervades Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997). The film tells the story of a Mr. Badii (Homayon Ershadi) and his quest to commit suicide. Without giving any background to his character, the film illustrates Badii as a man trapped in a society that is continually closing in around him. The film’s carefully controlled style conveys how an orthodox Iranian society can trap its protagonist, director, and audience. Claustrophobic imagery of repetition and burial permeates every sequence. The choice of shots, framing, production locations and colors allows the audience to experience Badii’s personal entrapment, even if we do not know his reasons for suicide. In acknowledging the burden of this society, Kiarostami also offers an inkling of hope, a sense that despite life’s trials there’s a remarkable sense of beauty in nature and humanity.

Kiarostami’s understanding of the Iranian government and subsequent emigration from the country provide weight to the relationship between the film’s style and his country’s austere political conservatism. The first 13 years of Kiarostami’s life were a period of relative freedom in Iran with numerous political parties and relatively little interference in everyday life and culture. In 1979, the Iranian Republic overthrew the Shah’s regime. Turmoil spread through the next decade as freedoms promised by the revolutionaries were held fast by the totalitarian government.

Kiarostami avoided being overtly political. According to Hamid Dabashii, Kiarostami instead focused on “an agenda of liberation from the received mandates of the culture of death and negation, metaphysics and mysticism, concealment and doubt. His cinema is the vision of life on earth, certainty in the real, a celebration of the transitory, the festive embracing of being-toward-now” (Close Up: Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future (London: Verso, 2001), 38). Kiarostami’s interest lay in the people that inhabited this world. He focused his camera on the everyday life of the average person.

As civil liberties were absorbed by the religious state and exacting codes of conduct were implemented with brutal force, Kiarostami used his canvas to show hope to his countrymen. His film, And Life Goes On (1991), displays Iranian citizens finding the joys of life and carrying on in the wake of a tragic earthquake. The Iranian government criticized the film for not adhering to “Islamic doctrines” and the director’s oeuvre was derided for showing a reality that differed from the “fear mongering” of the post-revolutionary regime. It seems even the suggestion of hope and happiness is too radical for the cultural overseers.

Entrapment and alienation are common threads through a subset of Iranian films in the late ’90s. Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998) relates the tale of two young girls who were trapped in their home by their elderly father. Freedom eventually comes, but in an Iranian society that suppresses women, it can only go so far. The symbol of the apple used throughout the film is not merely a forbidden fruit, but an object of hope that leads one out of a repressive society with the illusion of freedom and happiness.

Indeed, the notion of freedom, even to walk around the streets unattended, is something that is out of reach to most Iranian women. Their plight is furthered in The Circle (2000). Jafar Panahi’s interweaving stories illustrate how time and time again women go to extremes to escape their circumstances only to be thwarted and punished by men. Any attempt by women to free themselves from their emotional and societal restraints results in a fugitive lifestyle where the eventual outcome is prison. They are outlawed in their own society. The use of a single tracking camera, the singular focal length of the lens, and tight misé-en-scene creates a sense of claustrophobia that mirrors the limited options for Iranian women. Trapped in a continual loop, one life runs into the other, one’s entrapment no different than any of the others.

Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry tackles the concepts of alienation and need to escape by trapping the protagonist Mr. Badii in a car. The use of the car is a common thread throughout Kiarostami’s films, because it forces characters to communicate. They can only talk and drive, their car passing backdrops and vistas that reflect their problematic situation.

A majority of A Taste of Cherry takes place in Mr. Badii’s car, with the camera either focused on the driver or his passenger. The camera is locked; it does not move. The world outside blurs by. Sheets of glass sit between the characters and the exterior creating the impression of two linked but separate worlds. To Mr. Baddi, there is a danger in the outside world and his car acts as a protective bubble of glass and metal. The occasional shot from the hood of the car shows the protagonist through the windshield, boxed in by the steel frame of his vehicle. At times the sun reflects off the glass, obscuring the occupants from view. The film expresses Badii in the moment, blind to others’ points of view and trapped inside his own depression.

The film tackles the subject of suicide, an act banned by the Qu’ran and Iranian government. By having his protagonist spend most of the film in a car driving around construction sites, upturned piles of dirt and barren mountains, Kiarostami paints a picture of Badii’s world, and perhaps of Iran, as claustrophobic and desolate, limiting and overbearing. Mr. Badii is cornered; he is desperate for an escape. He is trapped in his car, itself offering limited protection from the outside world that bears upon him, searching for an escape that he believes can only be provided in death.

The film never explains why Baddi wants to commit suicide, but the landscapes and shot selection give the impression that life is burying him. Given Kiarostami’s depiction of the outside landscape as a dirt prison closing around his protagonist, and his tackling of a banned subject, the cause is likely be tied to the nature of Iranian society.

The film opens with Badii searching for someone. He needs someone (a man) to bury him after he commits suicide. The manners in which Badii approaches single men by driving in his car, the way he initially offers money, immediately identifies his cause as illicit. To a Western audience, Badii’s offer is reminiscent of a homosexual pickup. These opening scenes suggest that Badii is different, an outsider forced to the fringes of both city and society.

Difference is what sets him apart—he feels that he does not belong, for some reason that is never made clear. Badii makes his request to one individual after another. No one is willing to help him. A poor man collects plastic, a young soldier forced into service, a seminarian who has escaped from the Iraq war—all have suffered but none accept his offer or reasons to commit suicide. We do not get a reason why Badii, why anyone would commit suicide, and maybe the director is saying he does not need one. It is only clear that Badii is on the outside looking in, that he feels trapped, journeying on an endless voyage through an unwelcoming landscape.

The lack of a clear reason for suicide makes it difficult to relate to Badii. To the audience, this initial detachment makes him even more of an outsider. Perhaps, after being attacked for making films about happiness in the face of despair, Kiarostami himself has begun to feel alienated. Badii, played by a close friend of Kiarostami, is an alter ego. The alter ego symbolizes difference. He is an outsider who personifies “solitude and stubbornness” and “differs from just about everybody,” refuses to clarify his intentions and provides scenarios for miscommunication.

The film deliberately attempts to obscure. Objects, faces and reasons—all manner of specificity—are constantly withheld from view. There is a presence to the off screen, of the nameless, the faceless, the unknown that affects life but cannot be defined.

In one scene Mr. Badii talks to an attendant on a construction site. He questions the attendant, asking why he is here. “What is there to guard on a holiday?” The question arises that if this is a holiday, and no one is here, why are all these other construction workers around? It is as if they are forced to be. The guard insists he must stay. In a way he is also trapped. The camera never reveals the actor playing the guard, his blurred reflection occasionally appearing in the glass tower that is his station. He is defined only by his voice and his job. That is all that is needed in this society.

The point of view from the car limits what we see in the background. It feels that we, with Badii, are traveling around in circles, going nowhere. It is an unreal space with no firm identity or orientation. There is no sense of place, no destination as the car travels in various directions across the dirty brown screen, back and forth over the same space again and again.

The sense of being trapped in a rigorous monotony is exemplified by the production design and location vistas. A Taste of Cherry’s production design is centered on shades of dirt. Mr. Badii’s car, both its exterior and interior, are varying shades of brown and beige. The characters clothes, bags, skin and hair all work within the limited color palette. The design pushes upon us a lifeless quality, a never-ending desert of blandness. The constant use of earth colors, of shades of yellow, beige and brown becomes oppressing. Dust rises up, obscuring the camera’s point of view. Its lens displays lifelessness, a lack of growth and impending death.

Badii drives in his mud brown car along the same dirt roads, passing one construction site after another. Backhoes and tractors toss up dirt, their endless noise grating on the senses. What reason is there for this constant development? It seems that there is endless construction where nothing happens; there is a near futility in the action of dirt being dug up again and again. The action instills a sense of being buried, not just by the earth, but also by the world around us.

Whether it is society, the government or progress at the expense of nature, there is a sense that the world is constantly bearing down, burying us to the point that the only means of escape is death. The camera tracks Badii’s car through the mountains, offering little to no sight of the blue sky. The camera is either on top of these mountains, looking down on a landscape of brown, or inside the car, watching a wall of dirt and shrubs move by as Badii holds the steering wheel. Occasionally the camera is positioned below the car as it travels by in a wide shot. A sliver of blue sky appears at the top of the screen only to be blocked by a dump truck of dirt seconds later.

Badii’s attempts to find an assistant are continually rejected and his reasons denounced by several men. After his talk with the seminarian, Badii gets out of his car and sits down in the midst of a working construction site. He stares at the ground, not wanting to move, mired in a world of dirt and filth. The camera focuses only on Badii, the dust and dirt swirling around him, covering him and obscuring our view through the lens.

Eventually a worker asks him why he is here, but Badii does not answer. The camera continues to focus on Badii, ignoring the worker. The worker is insistent that Badii leave, but the protagonist remains silent. The film finally cuts to the worker, his face wrapped in a dirty cloth, offering limited protection from the ever-present dust. Only his eyes peek through his haphazard mask: a faceless worker with a false sense of authority insisting that Badii move on. Badii’s malaise is clearly understood: why should he continue on if he is just going to kill himself? Why move on from one burial to another?

We know where Badii will go next. He will continue his quest, driving through this desolate landscape of dirt and scrub bushes, the heavy noise of machinery always close by. Badii’s car moves along the same weaving roads, on his quest to death, moving neither forward nor backward in his journey. After he picks his passengers up, they are all transported through the same shots, the same pieces of dialogue, the same request by Badii. There is the futile sense that in this world, life and its tasks are a constant motion that never really begins or ends, but continues on.

Likewise, the editing in the driving sequences does not always follow normal continuity. The car is seen going left to right in one shot and right to left in the next. This lack of direction in shot sequencing adds to the sense of wandering aimlessly, of having no direction in life. The shots, like the guard at his station, like the worker in the dirt storm, become almost faceless, just another piece of the machinery. After a while, the viewer wonders if this is the exact same shot he or she has seen before. Is it the exact same sequence, just inserted again to fulfill a function? Is the actor playing Badii actually in the car? Are his companions? At times it is hard to tell. We hear their voices, and make assumptions of what the vehicle’s occupants are doing, but how do we know? They are isolated, hidden in the faceless, directionless machine as it moves across the same brown landscape once again.

The sense of a repetitive entrapped nature changes with the introduction of Mr. Bagheri, the old man who takes Badii up on his request. The first noticeable change is that we are no longer privy to Badii picking this man up and taking him to the desired spot. The sequence begins with Mr. Bagheri accepting Badii’s request to bury Badii the next morning. Immediately, something is different. Badii begins his usual journey back, but Bagheri stops him. He tells Badii to take another route.

This route takes us to a new area, one with the presence of greenery, of life and color. It is instantly identifiable as a different space, a new route that Badii has yet to discover. As Bagheri relates his own thoughts of suicide, and how he overcame them, the world around the brown automobile comes to life. White homes, lush vegetation, and the colorful costumes of pedestrians on the street fill the space beyond the car’s windows. It is a welcoming world.

Bagheri talks of how he had felt trapped and depressed but was able to recognize the beauty of life and the fulfillment of living for others. In Bagheri’s case, it was his wife, children and the taste of a ripe cherry that brought him back. He was able to appreciate the beauty of life and it gave him a desire to teach that recognition to others. He shows Badii a world filled with life. He sings about cherries and the glories of nature, a nature that is foreign to the world Badii has been driving through all day. Bagheri’s words and the world he introduces begin to affect Badii.

Kiarostami shows this new perspective with the introduction of new shots and colors to the film’s palette. Point of view shots that peer out the front window of the car begin to enter into the film’s language. Baddi is seeing the world anew, seeing hope, something to live for in the beauty that Bagheri has introduced to him to. Badii is having second doubts about suicide. Perhaps he is not as trapped as he once thought. After Bagheri leaves the car, Badii’s window remains down, open to the outside world.

For the first time in the film, he has interactions with people that do not concern his oppressive thoughts of suicide. He takes a picture of a young woman and her husband. Kids laugh and play in the background. Someone shouts at Badii, asking if he has a death wish, his recklessness a noticeable difference from the measured driver we have seen throughout the film. Badii journeys to the museum, its glimmering white façade a testament to knowledge, one that inspires a sense of liberty and awe. Badii, now unsure of his decision to kill himself, requests that Bagheri triple check that Badii is not just sleeping in his grave. There is the possibility that there may be an escape, that despite the restrictions, the entrapment fostered on him by Iranian society, one can find a sense of joy, of freedom.

Kiarostami leaves Badii’s fate open. We last see Badii in his grave, having doubts about what he is doing. Is Bageheri’s small inkling of hope enough to overcome the endless desert that is his life? Badii stares up at the blackness of the sky, trapped in a dirt hole. Thunder echoes over the valley. A storm approaches. The screen goes black. Once again Kiarostami does not allow us to face this mysterious, faceless force. We are left guessing. Is there no escape, is there only darkness? Can we never escape life’s burdens? The darkness suggests a dour finality to the oppression of Badii’s life and quest for escape.

The film ends with a colorful coda featuring Mr. Badii (or the actor who played him) walking around with some young soldiers in springtime. The trees are green, the sun is warm and the oppressive dirt is nowhere to be seen. Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” plays over the scene, a New Orleans funeral march both lamenting death and celebrating life. The use of Western music, the introduction of the outside world, suggests a freer state that is rich with color and life, one where Badii can belong. Death is a release but it is not the only way. Kiarostami gives the audience the impression that there is an escape, whether through cultural objects like film and music, or in a life not domineered by the Iranian government.

The repressive regime under which Kiarostami developed this project indicates a larger scheme is at hand. Badii’s journey is an allegorical one. The figures stand for something larger: elements of society, of the government, religion and knowledge that factor into modern day Iranian society. It is a society in which the outsider, anyone who thinks or acts differently, is alienated and trapped. Leaving the film open to interpretation allows us to put our own trappings into it.

Any moral to the story is so tacit as to be almost unnoticeable. If there are any ‘lessons’ to be learned they are almost immediately subverted. If Mr. Badii is Kiarostami’s alter ego, if the life he finds in film, the sense of hope, the taste of cherry, has been torn from him, buried by the oppressive government, then he too is trapped. Each carefully planned frame of the movie resonates the sense of weariness, separation and entrapment that we have all experienced. There is an escape, a world beyond, but we must be willing to change our plans and take the road less traveled.