With each film he made, the internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami left critics grasping for superlatives, and his death this past Monday has challenged them to find ways to fully describe the distinctive nature of his cinematic mastery. In his New Yorker obituary for Kiarostami, Richard Brody calls him “simply one of the most original and influential directors in the history of cinema,” as well as “the first Iranian filmmaker who expanded the history of cinema not merely in a sociological sense but in an artistic one,” whose “tenacious, bold, restless originality” brought the world to Iranian cinema and Iranian cinema to the world.
Brody narrated video essays on two films of Kiarostami’s. He calls 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us (above) “the greatest of Kiarostami’s Iranian films,” a showcase for his combination of “patient and loving attention to characters drawn from daily life and to their landscapes with a precise, canny, and fierce distillation of concrete phenomena into brilliant, vertiginous, and liberating abstractions.” In 2012’s Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami’s final film, he “found himself freer than usual to depict such ordinary events as a woman, her hair uncovered, in a bedroom with a man. But, facing the seemingly limitless freedom of depiction, Kiarostami ingeniously reverses the equation; starting with the title and continuing with the very first shot, he questions the difference between simulation and reality, between imitation and being.”
Audiences everywhere thrilled to Kiarostami’s treatment of those concepts, potentially abstruse in the hands of other filmmakers but never in his, when he put them at the center of 2010’s Juliette Binoche-staring Certified Copy, the first film he made outside Iran. In his video essay “The Double Life of James and Juliette: Mysteries and Perceptions in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy,” cinema scholar Peter Labuza breaks down this many-layered, multifaceted, multilingual work, in one sense a no-frills relationship drama about a man and a woman who may or may not be or have been married, and in another a “complete and total enigma” deeply concerned with “the nature and role of perception.”
Graham Bollard‘s “The Minimalist Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami” focuses on the director’s aesthetic choices, such as often shooting inside cars, whose space “helps define the main character’s point of view” and repeating a shot in such a way that “we, the audience, are forced to view it in different ways that take on different meanings,” drawing visual evidence from Kiarostami’s Iranian films like Taste of Cherry, Ten, and Close-Up, from which Hamid Dabashi’s book Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future takes its name. The essay ends with a quote from it, describing Kiarostami’s work as “there to filter the world and thus strip it of all its cultures, narrativities, authorities, and ideologies” — no small accomplishment for one lifetime in cinema.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.