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The Wind Will Carry Us Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami Starring Behzad Dourani Classification: PG Rating: **** Abbas Kiarostami's reputation as one of the past decade's most essential directors is reinforced with his latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us. The film ended up on numerous American Top-10 polls last year, partly as a culmination of increasing familiarity with the Iranian master's work, and partly because it's such an engaging, layered work in itself.

Kiarostami, whose films took four out of the top six spots in Cinematheque Ontario's list last year of the best films of the 1990s, is, arguably, the most important film director alive, though the appraisal is not universal. For a lot of North American moviegoers, his films are too filled with little struggles of unknown people to compete with Titanic or Terminator. A reasonable question is: What's so great about Kiarostami, a director who is obviously not the flashiest, wide-ranging or innovative creator of cinema?

The answer, which The Wind Will Carry Us demonstrates so well, is by analogy to literature. Kiarostami is a philosophical storyteller, a poet, a dramatist of the human condition with parallels to Samuel Beckett and Ingmar Bergman, but who is also willing to wrap his stories in Borgesian games of perception and disguise. Like Tolstoy, there's a modest goodness and compassion to his vision and though he can be highly ironic and complex, he's not above the wisdom of a simple truth. On top of all this, he has a documentarian's fascination with detail, the accumulation of day-to-day routines that make up life.

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The Wind Will Carry Us begins with a truck rolling along a meandering desert road: "We're heading nowhere," complains a voice. It belongs to a bespectacled, blue-jeaned intellectual named Behzad (Behzad Dourani) and his three-man crew, whom we never see. They are travelling from Tehran to a remote Kurdish village of Siah Dareh. They're having a hard time with the local maps.

Their mission is mysterious, though the villagers call him the Engineer, assuming he's in charge of a work project; in any case, he is the director-surrogate here, involved in the complex ethical issue of exploiting the local population in ways they don't understand.

The crew jokes with a local boy, Farzad, assigned to guide them, that they are "treasure hunting." What are the men there for? It's not quite clear, but it is somehow related to an old woman, who is on the verge of death. The crew's intention, gradually revealed, is to document -- for media interest -- the sensational local funeral rituals, where women mourners scar their faces. The trouble is, they need a death or their time is wasted.

This fish-out-of-water situation, naturally, leads to a strange kind of comedy, which governs the nattering, to-and-fro action of much of the film. Behzad is waiting for an important phone call from the city, but the village, in a valley, has terrible reception. Each time his cellphone rings, the Engineer is obliged to leap into his jeep and race to a hilltop to complete the call, although sometimes it's only his mother. Goats and chickens get in his way. He turns cruelly on the boy Farzad, breaking the one friendship he had established. At one point, he watches a turtle crossing a path, and in frustration, he kicks it over on its back.

On the hilltop is a cemetary, and at the end of almost every phone call, in a Hamlet moment, he has a conversation with an unseen digger. The digger is working on some project that he says is related to "telecommunications"; at one point, he tosses up a human femur; Behzad takes the bone as a souvenir.

Simultaneously with these allegorical moments, the movie is a kind of exalted journalism, exploring the maze of the hillside town and its rituals of life, with the Engineer as an interrogator.

As usual, Kiarostami uses the car window as a sort of film frame, although in most cases in The Wind Will Carry Us, we see only the Engineer's face, talking to invisible people outside his car.

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The Engineer is particularly obsessed with getting fresh milk, which he views as a natural privilege of a country sojourn. For some reason, it always seems difficult to obtain. Finally, the ditch-digger tells him to go to his wife's home. When he finds it, there's a haunting scene in which he descends into a dark basement. There's a long, single-shot scene in the basement, focusing on the half-hidden teenaged girl milking a cow, while the Engineer flirts, and recites an erotic poem to her by the feminist Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967). The words include the title of the film.

Like so many Iranian films, the end brings preceding events into sharp focus: Nothing happens, and then everything happens. There's an old motorcycle-riding doctor at the film's conclusion who, like the nomadic taxidermist in A Taste of Cherry, speaks in homilies about what makes life valuable. The heart of the film lies in the dark, strange basement, where a poem is being recited, a cow being milked, and nourishment and beauty, ignorance and fear, are intimately woven. In a world where everyday life is an accumulation of small frustrations and nothing quite works as well as it should, the scene is a moment of that terrible, wonderful, priceless experience of awe.

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