“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 Us—the 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 film—at 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 Us is 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 elements—including 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.
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 geography—the 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 life—its 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 seen—or 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 hill—a 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 back—perhaps 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 everything—life, 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.
For all its glorious time-wasting, The Wind Will Carry Us is essentially a deathwatch. Late in the movie, it’s casually revealed that the Engineer has been hanging out in Siah Dareh for two weeks. When night finally falls, however, it’s as though the time he’s spent there has been a single golden, purposeless, perpetual afternoon.
The 59-year-old Kiarostami may be the last international filmmaker to grow up under the influence of Italian neorealism—its tendencies may be seen in his use of nonactors and “ordinary” situations, his uninflected camera style and eschewal of mood music, his interest in children and taste for open endings. But as the last neorealist, Kiarostami is a necessarily self-reflexive one. With exquisite timing, the Screening Room has scheduled a brief Kiarostami retro, including his hall-of-mirrors staged documentary Close-Up (1990) and the so-called Koker trilogy—Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994)—an exceptional suite of movies that refer both to Iran’s devastating 1991 earthquake and to each other.
Tastefully directed by French veteran Patrice Leconte, Girl on the Bridge is a film of fake magic and facile enchantment—a slick bit of Fellini, a hint of Wings of Desire, a sort of Leos Carax lite. This ardently eccentric love story is mild stuff, but the jaunty, eclectic score and choppy camera give the impression of something more—in the same spirit that the tinted black-and-white cinematography feels forever trembling on the brink of color.
Leconte’s romantic fable opens with a burst of North African music and a pretty young girl named Adele (pop star Vanessa Paradis) telling the sad tale of her naive affairs. This backstory is the setup for sadly promiscuous and pertly despairing Adele to hurl herself off a Paris bridge—a fate from which she is saved by the timely appearance of an irritating middle-aged bore (Daniel Auteuil) who turns out to be the great Gabor, a professional knife thrower in need of a lissome new target. Together, Adele and Gabor plunge into the circus backstage. The knife-throwing performances are filmed as though they were sexual encounters; not only the audience but the whole sideshow is transfixed by their erotic power. (Although Gabor sublimates his sexuality in his public performances, the filmmakers take care to confirm his normality by including a wistful former lover.) Adele’s fooling around with assorted train conductors and contortionists notwithstanding, the two expand their rapport to include a telepathic roulette racket.
The gap-toothed Paradis is certainly a cutie pie. So is the movie, and some people are bound to come under its somewhat shopworn spell. Girl on the Bridge is painless—not particularly funny and not even remotely moving. Most of the big scenes are shamelessly prompted by the soundtrack, as the couple wander along the Mediterranean, playing an Italian carnival and an Adriatic cruise ship. The latter proves critical to their relationship while providing the movie’s single most satisfying joke, which involves a badly aimed throw and the Brenda Lee chestnut “I’m Sorry.”