The early 1990s were a period of crisis for many cinephiles. The cinema would celebrate, in 1995, 100 years of history, commemorated by television specials and maudlin salutes commissioned by the British Film Institute. But the anniversary seemed to occasion anxiety and doubt. A digital revolution loomed.
"Cinema reached its point of maximal definition a couple of decades back," critic Godfrey Cheshire wrote, "and it has been slowly dissipating as a cultural force since."
Was the motion picture era over? Had the medium exhausted its appeal?
The prognosis was grim. But on the horizon an antidote appeared: Abbas Kiarostami, a mysterious figure hailing from Iran. He hit the festival circuit like the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show – and cinephiles the world over were electrified.
"Just as I felt that the cinema was growing tired under the weight of its centenary," film theorist Laura Mulvey said in a recent interview, "the films of Kiarostami seemed to give it new life."
This ascent was not immediate. Kiarostami began making films in the early 1970s, under the aegis of Kanun, Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. His earliest shorts and features – strongly moral picaresques starring and geared toward kids – have emerged from obscurity in recent years, though they had no international profile at the time. It wasn't until the premiere of Where is the Friend's Home? at the 1987 Locarno Film Festival that critics abroad took note. That picture, playfully dense, at once delighted and beguiled, seeming to amuse as light comedy while implying a more ambitious design. It would be the first instalment of what is now called the Koker trilogy – perhaps the most highly regarded arthouse trilogy ever made, and one on display at the TIFF Bell Lightbox's new retrospective, The Wind Will Carry Us: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami.
That the filmmaker came to be recognized as a major talent more than two decades into his career may be an injustice. And yet his star rose at a fortunate time. There is something distinctly millennial about Kiarostami's cinema: His films were modern, anticipating in their daring and ingenuity changes to the form many felt were due.
Alarmists were, of course, mistaken about the motion picture's imminent demise. But the medium was transforming in a very radical way – physically, and irrevocably, as celluloid itself vanished from the craft. Kiarostami was among the first to adapt, shooting two features – the documentary ABC Africa and the experimental "docufiction" Ten – on inexpensive, consumer-grade digital cameras in 2001, well before the format was the norm.
Ten was received enthusiastically at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered in competition for the Palme D'or (an honour Kiarostami had won just a few years prior, for Taste of Cherry). But the enthusiasm was hardly unanimous. Critic Roger Ebert sprang up as a vociferous naysayer, and he would remain the director's most noteworthy voice of dissent. He sparred memorably with the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1998, when Taste of Cherry arrived in Chicago: Ebert's one-star review provoked nearly as much discussion as the film itself. By the time Ten was released, Ebert had made up his mind about the matter: "His films are meant not so much to be watched as to be written about; his reviews make better points than he does."
Kiarostami's films have certainly inspired a great deal of intelligent and impassioned criticism. And why not? They are bountifully rich, and lend themselves well to serious thought. But the mistake is to think of these films as interpretative challenges. Kiarostami doesn't think in problems or abstractions; his work doesn't demand that it be fussed over or puzzled out. Sit a 10-year-old down in front of The Experience and he won't feel that some abstruse point has eluded him. Probably that was part of the appeal for Kiarostami of children as both subject and prospective audience: A child isn't compelled to solve everything. The only prerequisite for enjoying a Kiarostami movie is a capacity for wonder.
The films stand clear in the mind. What I remember most, though, are the inessential things – moments of so little consequence that another director wouldn't have kept them in. A green aerosol can rolls down a hill in Close-up, followed by the camera for a minute until it almost clatters out of view. An apple enjoys a similar journey in The Wind Will Carry Us, followed later on by a scurrying beetle and a bone floating down a stream.
These details don't have an obvious symbolic function; there isn't a simple reason why they have been included at all. But if Kiarostami seemed to reinvigorate the cinema at a moment of apparent decline, it was precisely for this willingness to expand the scope of what movies can do. His films, Mulvey said, repose the question famously asked by André Bazin half a century before: "What is cinema?" To watch Kiarostami is to begin to feel you might know.
The Wind Will Carry Us: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami runs through April 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Film scholar Kaveh Askari will introduce the screening of Close-Up on March 1 (tiff.net).