As 2020 comes to a close, it’s important to reflect upon how this year has impacted us in ways we might have never expected it to. Spending extended periods of time in isolation, learning new ways to experience “down time,” and getting comfortable in an uncomfortable routine of monotony can bring people to deeply tune into their own introspection. Whether we want to or not, facing the silence and slow pace of the everyday forces us to contemplate our functions, our purposes, and our short and seemingly small existence on this planet. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami invites audiences to ask and ponder these questions in his films with his careful artistry with slow cinema. His film Taste of Cherry (1997) is a testimony to the human curiosities and concerns of what makes life worth living through a narrative that follows man’s determination to commit suicide.
Middle-aged Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) spends a day driving around a Tehranian suburb, searching for someone to help him carry out his plan to commit suicide. His request is simple: As he has already dug his early grave under a cherry tree, he plans to consume a bottle of sleeping pills and fall asleep – all he needs is someone to check on him in the morning to see if he is alive or dead. If he is alive, the person should help him up. If he is dead, he must cover the grave and bury him with more dirt. Either way, the person will be paid.
The film, which runs for what feels like a long hour and thirty-five minutes, is composed of many long takes, most of which are either medium close ups that take place inside Mr. Badii’s car or wide shots that observe the car as it drives along windy roads through the rural landscapes. These long takes place an emphasis on the scene’s subject matter. Rather than having complex compositions or multiple shots to convey these big philosophical and spiritual ideas, these scenes force the viewer to pay attention to the conversations being had and invite them to reflect.
Mr. Badii picks up three people throughout his day. Being confined to the inside his moving car, each person listens to his pitch and brings their own perspective to his dire situation. The first person he picks up is a young teenage soldier (Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari). Throughout their scene together, the two chat inside the car on their way to the soldier’s base. Mr. Badii draws upon parallels between his life and that of the young soldier. He often calls him his “son,” although he is a total stranger. He tries to empathize with him to make him more comfortable before asking for such an intimate favor. Slowly, the young soldier lets his guard down and Mr. Badii takes him along a different route, detouring to show the job site under the cherry tree. Begging him to comply, Mr. Badii repeats over and over again the task, arguing in whatever way he can to disarm the young soldier enough to accept the job. Instead, the young man gets more and more uncomfortable and visibly scared, ultimately bolting out of the car to run back to base. Their encounter is a failed attempt for mutual identification. Mr. Badii treated the young soldier as a means to an end through phony empathy, completely bypassing the young soldier’s still developing existence and exploration as a human entity.
Mr. Badii meets his second passenger after stopping at a construction site. This scene is bookended with shots of bulldozers dumping mounds of dirt. Across two shots, Mr. Badii watches as the dirt falls and trickles down the hill, creating a cloud of dirt foreshadowing his possible fate of being buried dead or alive. This next passenger is an Afghani seminarist. Still in Seminary school, he offers his educated perspective on the matter. The seminarist quotes the Quran and references the religious text to support his decision not to help Mr. Badii. Offering the perspective from a religious scholar, the seminarist frustrates Mr. Badii because he is not seeking spiritual advice or guidance – he believes he is too far gone to be convinced otherwise. Mr. Badii starts to tear up as he raises his voice at the seminarist, confirming his fragile emotional state. The seminarist, a good muslim who is well versed in his faith, tries to comfort Mr. Badii by inviting him to spend time with him and his friend upon returning to the construction site. Once again, Mr. Badii is met with another roadblock and is in a race against time to find someone new. Before hitting the road again, a montage of long takes of Mr. Badii overlooking the bulldozers dumping dirt that falls down the mounds capture his shadow superimposed on the falling dirt. Bracketing the scene to move us to the next chapter, these shots confront the viewer with Mr. Badii’s request visually by honing into the imagery of his body being buried prematurely, calling us to focus and think about the situation and reflect upon our own value of life.
The final passenger in Mr. Badii’s car is Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri). Ulike the first two passengers, Mr. Bagheri isn’t shown to enter the car. His scene starts with a shot of Mr. Badii showing his passenger the location of his grave. From the start, the passenger is anonymous. We never see him get in the car, nor do we know who he is or where he is going. He is established as a man of intention. While discussing the job, which we can infer he accepts, Mr. Bagheri notes that the job must be done “properly with all your heart” in order for it to be more “just” and “reasonable.” His voice falls over shots of the car driving on windy roads through the hills. He emphasizes the importance of talking about the problem and considering the costs of suicide as it is not the most sustainable solution to life’s problems. Unlike the first two passengers, Mr. Bagheri is the only one who gives directions, taking Mr. Badii on his own detour for a more scenic route. His scene is entirely constructed to put him at odds with the previous passengers, hinting at his distinct and special nature in comparison. We finally see Mr. Bagheri in a medium close up shot when he opens up about his own suicide attempt, his survival and how the taste of a mulberry gave him the will to live. His testimony provokes something within Mr. Badii that wasn’t visible before – his fear and uncertainty. Once his fate is confirmed with Mr. Bagheri’s decision to do the job, Mr. Badii reminds Mr. Bagheri that he might still be alive the next morning and that he should try to wake him up just in case. Now that Mr. Badii is now face to face with his own mortality, he panics. What Mr. Bagheri shows Mr. Badii is true empathy and compassion, despite his willing participation in his burial. He does the job because, yes, he needs he money to heal his dying son, but he also does the job because he hopes that the purpose he is willing to put into this experience with Mr. Badii, the car ride included, will be enough to remind him of what humans are capable of if we live a life with much intention.
We never learn why Mr. Badii wants to kill himself, nor do we learn whether or not he dies. We can only assume he is left with the same impression as we are after his final encounter with Mr. Bagheri, and in his own silence, he finds the will to live and the distaste for a premature death, regardless of his fateful outcome. A Taste of Cherry leaves us with a reminder that if we return to our body and its senses, we’ll understand that our mortal life is a gift that should not be wasted and should be led with purpose and intention with every choice we make and actions we take.