The Import/export Business: The Road to Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry

By Orgeron, Devin | CineAction, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Import/export Business: The Road to Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry


Orgeron, Devin, CineAction


The road is a recurring trope in the cinema of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and is the explicit backbone of his 1997 film Taste of Cherry. Kiarostami's films repeatedly use the road to comment critically upon international and particularly non-Western cinema's longstanding and conflicted relationships with the image-machines of America and of Hollywood in particular. Kiarostami's roads are a key element in his cinematic reflexivity, his running dialogue with the history of images, major cinematic movements, and the cult of authorship. Kiarostami is a filmmaker who, for the past decade, has been subjected to an unprecedented number of auteurist similes: he is like Godard, like Angelopolous, like Antonioni, like De Sica, etc. It is, in fact, not difficult to detect in Kiarostami's films various philosophical or aesthetic points of comparison, for his work has important formal and political ties to those filmmakers already mentioned. But what follows is only partly an attempt to situate Kiarostami's work w ithin this matrix of his cinematic predecessors and contemporaries. It is, more importantly, an argument about Kiarostami's remarkable imagistic consistency and a quest for an answer to the perhaps obvious question: Where does Kiarostami's interest in the road come from?

Post-War European Cinema and The Road to Kiarostami

Since the turn-of-the-century, the technology of cinema and the technology of transportation have been intimately bound. Early cinema borrowed from the situation of locomotive travel both for its presentational organization and for its themes. (1) As films "about" trains entering stations lost their appeal, early filmmakers turned their attention to the automobile or, in the case of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Melies, toward fantastic vehicles of the future. These early films were both curious and skeptical about the future of mechanized mobility. The Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, Cecil Hepworth and others contributed to an important early cinematic trend (we might think of it as an early cinematic "mini-genre") that depicted the horrors of motorized travel. (2) Though comedic, these films, which were in vogue for nearly a decade, trained the cinematic eye on images of destruction: train-wrecks, automobile collisions, and other transportational disasters. Progress, these films humorously suggested, came at a price.

This idea would take on additional political and cultural weight, however, at the end of the Second World War when "progress" itself was frequently figured in terms of American cultural influence overseas. The road as critical component in the service of these critiques was first firmly established in post-war Italian cinema. Kiarostami, though he is famously loath to list his "influences," has acknowledged his admiration of and debt to the Italian neo-realists and his alienation when faced with Hollywood films from the same period (Italian and American films were screened regularly in the Iran of Kiarostami's youth). Neo-realism was, in many ways, a reaction against the Hollywood artifice Kiarostami found in those formative film-going years, so distant from his experience of life. Often no less romantic or melodramatic, these films presented the emerging artist with something simultaneously new and familiar. In a 1997 interview with Nassia Hamid, Kiarostami explains this apparent contradiction with characte ristic matter-of-fact aplomb: "for the first time I saw people who were very close to the people who were around me in Iran." (3)

These people who seemed so close to Kiarostami were often engaged in narratives of mobility. Vittorio de Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (1948), with its post-war landscapes of desolation, its stinging images of social and economic displacement, and its narrative structure revolving around its protagonist's tenuous access to mobility, is a clear influence, and Kiarostami's earliest work is markedly descended from its modes. …

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