Abbas Kiarostami – an Iranian master of cinematic mystique

Abbas Kiarostami, a writer-director who proved Iranian cinema was one of the most original and emotionally engaging films in the world, died in Paris earlier this week from complications related to cancer. He was 76.
Abbas Kiarostami; (insert) A still from one of his most critically acclaimed films Certified Copy
Abbas Kiarostami; (insert) A still from one of his most critically acclaimed films Certified Copy

Chennai

Part of a new wave of Iranian cinema that started in the 1960s, Kiarostami was known for realistic stories focused on the lives of ordinary people. He was one of the few filmmakers to stay and prosper in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. 
My introduction to Kiarostami’s filmography began with a very unlikely film – a bilingual French English production titled Certified Copy, which stars one of my favourite actresses – Juliette Binoche ( The English Patient’, ‘Chocolat ) and William Shimell. I refer to this film as an alternate retelling of the story of Celine and Jesse, the characters portrayed by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, in the Before trilogy, directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood). I always wondered if the picture perfect lives of the Linklater’s characters would have eventually evolved into the circumstances that Kiarostami’s characters find themselves in. 
Kiarostami’s worldview is kaleidoscopic, which informs his narrative in Certified Copy, an elaborately constructed maze of a film. The amount of backstory or exposition provided to clue in a viewer on the origin of a character is minimal, to a fault. Kiarostami inverts the cinematic axiom of Do not tell, but show, to ‘show them telling you about their lives’. His understanding of the human condition is flawless as he thrusts us headlong into the lives of a couple who may not be what they seem to be. Toying with the notion of identity, stylistically and thematically, he challenges the viewer to apply one’s own interpretation of the proceedings in this emotionally dense character-driven drama. 
To say that his movies are talky and that his characters are chatty would be to undermine his astute ear for dialogue and his eye for intimacy in the most unexpected of places. Characters in his films banter like ordinary folks, but the chatter is elevated above mundaneness, thanks to his sense of restraint and his belief in the value of withholding information, rather than divulging it. There are things he knows, there are things his characters know and there are things that we think we might know. Often, the three are never the same.
Intrigued by Certified Copy, which leaves many questions unanswered, I chanced upon yet another film directed by him, which in my opinion, seemed a more accessible feature – a Japanese language drama titled Like Someone in Love. The unlikely story finds an elderly former professor who hires the services of a university student moonlighting as an escort. What follows is a genuinely humane, at times hilarious and often devastating look at people’s need for love and companionship and the mysterious ways of the heart. 
An online tribute to this director, quoted him as saying, “When I have nothing in my pocket, I have poetry, When I have nothing in my fridge, I have poetry, When I have nothing in my heart, I have nothing.” It’s hard to talk about a Kiarostami film without giving too much away. His departure has nonetheless ignited a spark to discover his films for the very first time, in my case, and rediscover what has already been seen, only to find a new meaning with every rediscovery. 

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