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"We're heading nowhere," a disembodied voice complains as a battered jeep crawls up a winding road through harsh, scrubby terrain. So begins The Wind Will Carry Usthe latest and, to my mind, the greatest film by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.
An engineer and his two never-seen assistants are traveling from Tehran to the remote Kurdish village of Siah Dareh. If the directions they attempt to follow are puzzling, so too are their intentions. These outsiders won't say what brings them to Siah Dareh, although they jokingly tell the village boy who has been appointed to guide them into town that they are looking for "treasure." It's soon clear that this treasure has something to do with a sick old woman (also never seen), but it's never directly revealed what that something is.
The Wind Will Carry Us is a marvelously assured filmat once straightforward and tricksy. It's also bracingly modest. For all the self-important claims certain experts have made on Kiarostami's behalf, his films are anything but pompous. Typically understated, The Wind Will Carry Usis less amusing than bemusing. Kiarostami's sense of humor feels as dry as the countryside he depicts; the film is in many regards a comedy. The timing is impeccable, the dialogue borderline absurd. The gags, if that's the word, are predicated on formal elementsincluding the filmmaker's rigorous, somewhat ironic, use of point of view and voice-over. The same routines are repeated throughout, often punctuated by amplified animal sounds, to establish a musical structure. (Shots often end with a herd of goats crossing the screen.) In this sense, The Wind Will Carry Us resembles the films of Jacques Tati and, more recently, Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro.
Abbas Kiarostami Retrospective
July 28 through August 2
Girl on the Bridge
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by David Hayter
A Paramount Classics release
Opens July 28
The city folks' obscure mission to Kurdistan is but one of the movie's modernist tropes. The villagers call the protagonist the Engineer in somewhat the same spirit that the outsider antihero of Kafka's Castle is known as the Land Surveyor. Indeed, having switched from cosmic long shot to more humanizing medium shot once the Engineer (Behzad Dourani) arrives in Siah Dareh, Kiarostami spends considerable time establishing the village's baffling geographythe steep, whitewashed maze of alleys and courtyards that are terraced into the hillside.
Taken as a documentary, which it is in part, The Wind Will Carry Us largely concerns the town's daily lifeits laconic customs and puzzling arguments. But Kiarostami's method points toward something more. This is a movie of disembodied voices and offscreen presences, including half the characters and a newborn baby. Like the Engineer's two-man crew, who are always indoors and supposedly eating strawberries, Kiarostami is forever drawing attention to that which cannot be seenor shown. (This might also include the Kurds, who are an officially "invisible" minority in Iran. The filmmaker has denied that The Wind Will Carry Us has any political intent, albeit in suggestively perceptual terms: "If the viewers have the impression of receiving a direct political message, it's up to them.")
In one (literally) running gag, the Engineer is required to scramble to the village's highest point so that his cell phone can receive an incoming signal from Tehran. (When he finally gets the connection, he discovers that he doesn't want the call.) The village graveyard is also located atop the hilla coincidence that allows for another sort of dematerialized conversation. While catching his breath, the Engineer has a series of conversations with an unseen ditchdigger who is excavating the cemetery to facilitate some mysterious form of "telecommunications." (The Engineer is mildly interested, and in a blithely metaphoric move, the ditchdigger throws him a bone.)
In what may be the strangest scene in this extraordinarily subtle and nuanced film, the Engineer uses an excursion to buy fresh milk as a pretext to drop in on the ditchdigger's girlfriend. She too, he discovers, lives in darkness. He finds her in one of the village's subterranean caverns, milking a goat, and is moved to recite the poem about loneliness that provides the movie's title. (The poem is by the late Forough Farrokhzad, a modernist and feminist icon, whose remarkable 1962 documentary on a leper colony was shown at the 1997 New York Film Festival.)
At last, the Engineer has put something in words. Skinny and balding, peering at the village through steel-rimmed glasses, this dungaree-wearing character is an example of what used to be called the intelligentsia. He is also a parody director who makes a few lame attempts to photograph the villagers, while more than once employing the actual camera as a mirror, peering directly into it as he shaves. The Engineer is interested in life. At one point, he idly flips a tortoise on its backperhaps to see how it will squirm. But at another, more crucial moment, he demonstrates that he cannot take action himself but only direct others to do so.
It's part of the movie's formal brilliance that, suddenly, during its final 10 minutes, too much seems to be happening. The Wind Will Carry Us is a film about nothing and everythinglife, death, the quality of light on dusty hills. (Kiarostami, as made clear by his recent show of photographs in a Chelsea gallery, is a landscape artist.) Confident in its lack of consequence, the film far surpasses the strained allegory that dogged Kiarostami's more stilted and schematic official masterpiece, Taste of Cherry. Effortlessly incorporating aspects of documentary and confessional filmmaking into an unforced, open-ended parable, The Wind Will Carry Us transforms barely anecdotal material into a mysteriously metaphysical vision.
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