A Taste of Cherry (Iran, 1997, Kiarostami)
Before criticising this film, I do want to register that this film has made me want to comment on it, in itself a basic sign for me that a thing is worthy of the attention.
The conclusion of ATOC so flabbergasted me, I was curious to know what others had made of it. So I Googled around. Alas, the mostly favorable opinions I encountered only confirmed my own, which is decidedly critical. It is one thing to leave the plot unresolved and the viewer in doubt. And this one thing might have been very powerful. But the addition of the frame-breaking postscript brings this ambigious ending itself into doubt, introducing recursive skepticism as to the meaning being conveyed such that there is nothing but a spiral into meaninglessness. While some have found this to be an intellectually valid meta-movement that deprives the passive viewer of any vicarious identification with the protagonist in order to compel the viewer to actively introject his own subjectivity into the scenario, I found it to be a hackneyed move that provides a pretentious cover for a failure to commit to the story as it has been told in its own right. Considering how minimalist is the plot in the first place - and given the absolute absence of any back-story of the protagonist - the last act of ATOC for me comes close to being a covert confession by the film-maker that even this much telling of the tale has been a complete waste of time.
My disappointment with the ending of the film is directly in proportion to my appreciation of the rest of it. I don't think ATOC is the profound exposure of suicidal determination it takes itself to be. The long takes and slow pace notwithstanding, this ain't no Camus. But it is a remarkable film for the high degree of suspense it generates without resorting to action and/or the intense threat of violence. I found it genuinely gripping. This is a hell of an achievement when you reflect on the fact that fuck all happens in the film. The few negative reviews I read were bored by ATOC but I can't imagine how anyone found it boring as it so explicitly deals with life and death in a morally charged context. Other than momentarily feeling irritated that we had been manipulated at the outset into suspecting that the guy was cruising for homosexual service, once his purpose is made plain the undertow of the film was hardcore dread that kept me on the edge of my seat.
At the same time, the cinematic composition of the thing is very sophisticated. There are many engaging images, some of which offer strong visual metaphors that speak directly to the situation. The man is looking for someone to bury him while all around industrial machines pour piles of earth. The shot of his shadow cast against a stream of falling gravel is quite exquisite, just for one example. There are a number of instances of him being separated from the immediate environment by a pane of glass, most frequently his only partly rolled-down car window, simultaneously indicating his having gone over to the death project and his holding onto a shard of ambivalence about this plan. The distancing techniques employed in the film include a keenly crafted soundtrack that brings the dialogue and certain ambient noises to the foreground in shots that either place the characters very far away or refuse to establish them in the same frame. The social alienation thematically underwriting the proceedings is presented with considerable artistic grace that I found as compelling as the suspense.
Comes down to cool form and empty content when the credits roll, though. Setting aside the frame-breaking postscript entirely, the ambigious ending and the complete lack of historical information explaining the protagonist's motives may or may not be acceptable but the premise of the story is simply weak stuff to begin with. The man is a Muslim who has managed to make suicide acceptable to his faith. This is a fancy bit of theological footwork if ever there was a step so subtle. Yet he is unable to rationalize killing himself without being properly buried afterwards. This is hardly a difficult dance compared to the big leap about God being cool will self-murderers. It's a lame plot contrivance because there is no psychological explanation for it. But of course, this amounts to saying that the lack of historical information explaining the protagonist's motives is not acceptable. No wonder that we never actually care about the guy one way or the other, and ATOC comes down to an exercise in style.