Looking for a Way to Die in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry

Taste of Cherry | Criterion

It takes 24 minutes before Badii finally explains to us that he needs help committing suicide. 

“You see that hole? That hole there…At 6 tomorrow morning, come here and call me twice: ‘Mr. Badii! Mr. Badii!’ If I reply, take my hand and help me out…If I don’t reply, throw in 20 spadefuls of dirt on top of me, take the money, and go.”

When Taste of Cherry played at Cannes in 1997, Kiarostami had already catapulted to international recognition thanks to films like Close-Up and Through the Olive Trees, movies about a con man reconciling with his victims, and an illiterate stonemason-turned-actor who pursues his crush on a film set. It was a body of work largely consisting of stories about young men in difficult circumstances who nonetheless emerged hopeful by the end. With such a seemingly optimistic outlook on life, why then did Kiarostami decide to make a film about someone so bent on taking his own life? Unlike those previous stories, here we couldn’t even expect the protagonist to make the typical journey from downbeat to positive when the goal is so macabre to begin with. When it comes to suicide, Taste of Cherry sticks to its guns and once we learn what Badii wants, there is little else in the way of plot or character development. 

The film is sustained on Homayoun Ershadi’s magnetic performance, a non-professional actor at the time, discovered by Kiarostami while stopped at a traffic light. For 95 minutes it’s carefully trained on his engrossing melancholy, as he drives around, looking for someone that will help bury him. The story is built around three philosophical conversations he has in his car with the passengers he picks up on the side of the street, making for a film that is unforgivingly minimal. It’s a road movie where the destination is death; one large conversation on the subject, with a through line that examines how a person’s attitude towards life changes as they age. Badii’s journey is a meandering loop where he asks himself the final questions one might consider before taking their own life, too afraid to go before making sure that everything is in order.

It starts in his car, on a busy city street in Tehran, with this inquisitive search. As he slows, men pool around his passenger-side window and ask if he needs a laborer. He examines them briefly before declining and moving on. On first viewing, it seems an innocent reaction—we simply assume he doesn’t see the person he’s looking for—but knowing what we know later about his goal, what can we imagine he’s thinking here? What does a person who’s going to help you kill yourself look like?

The first person that he picks up is a teenage soldier looking for a ride to his barracks. Badii carefully lulls him into conversation, telling him about his own mandatory military service, how it resulted in some of the most cherished memories of his life. He talks about the friends he made, and mimics the breathy counting of their morning marches. It’s an uncomfortable moment where we get the palpable sense that Badii’s rushing to build an emotional connection with someone who’s only expecting small talk. He’s sharing this story the way a man twice his age might, with nothing left to do other than to pass his memories onto those that will listen. We begin to get the sense that something’s wrong and his words start to sound like those of someone lost deep in reflection. In a cryptic turn, Badii tells the shy soldier that he has a job he needs help with and begins to drive farther out of the city and onto the dirt roads of the outskirts. He drives up and around a hill while the Soldier grows increasingly anxious about what this task might be. Even the formalism here is strict and sometimes suffocating, where the conversation is presented entirely in shot reverse shot, with the occasional extreme wide looking at the car moving through the landscape like a toy. By the time Badii finally stops to explain, next to the anemic tree that marks his hole in the ground, the soldier is barely able to make eye contact. He seems desperate for a way out of this awkward situation, “I don’t want to be involved in this. Take me back.” Badii pleads before getting back in the driver’s seat and the boy darts out the passenger side, running down the large hill as fast and far as he can, afraid of being around a stranger with such a dark request.

This is, for the most part, the format of the rest of the film, with the conversation progressing a little more each time. Badii mournfully watches a troupe of soldiers jog up the hill before picking up his second passenger, a young Seminarist who is still in the middle of his religious studies. He appeals to the man’s understanding of God’s mercy to make the case for why he should help end his life, in a winding conversation about the philosophies of life and death. Again, you feel uncomfortable because he’s trying too hard, using every rhetorical tool he can grasp to convince his passenger to help him. The Seminarist calmly explains that suicide isn’t allowed in Islam but Badii simply rebukes him: “If I wanted a lecture, I’d have turned to someone with more experience, who’s finished their studies.” Even though they’re faced in the same direction, sitting next to each other, the camera always presents them on opposite sides of the frame. We never see Badii and his passenger together in a two shot while they’re in the car. They’re exclusively shown in this way, constantly facing one another, always in conversation. It’s finally the third passenger who agrees to help him: an ageing taxidermist who needs the money for his ill child. As Badii drives him back to town, the old man tells him about a time that he himself tried to commit suicide. While trying to tie his noose around a tree, he came upon a mulberry and tasted it; the sweet delight of such a simple pleasure saved him.

These three passengers serve as a foil for Badii’s decision to kill himself. They become a way for him to discuss out loud the questions he wants to ask himself about life, duty, and companionship. Not only do they respond differently to his volleys, but they depict one’s changing relationship with death as we age. It’s no coincidence that the young Solider can barely talk to Badii about this and runs away scared at the first opportunity. The Seminarist is slightly older, and he’s able to actually have a conversation with him about death. He even steps out of the car to take a look at the grave. Still, he tries to convince Badii not to go through with this. As the oldest passenger, the Taxidermist has had a suicidal experience of his own and seems to understand Badii’s pain better. Even though he has a story to share about how his outlook changed, he commits to helping him in a move that feels both pragmatic and empathetic. 

Badii listens quietly during this whole story, and now the Taxidermist is directing the car left and right along the unfamiliar dirt roads. It feels like he’s finding a new path—a change from the push and pull of death, constantly driving up and down the mountain in search—but as they say their goodbyes, he sticks to his dark desire. Like the push and pull of life, Taste of Cherry is an assortment of contradictions. Badii declines the Seminarist’s offer to eat a meal by explaining that eggs don’t sit well with him—why does that matter if he’s going to kill himself at the end of the night? Why does he run back to the museum to tell the Taxidermist to shake him and really make sure he isn’t just sleeping before burying him? The film is emotionally cold and distant, but the ochre landscape is warm and Ershadi’s forlorn face extracts our unending curiosity. It’s all vague, with no clear answers about why Badii wants to do this, and yet we still find ourselves pulled into his journey, hoping for him to fail, and somehow darker still, hoping for him to succeed if it will bring him the peace he seems to be searching for.

Why does the film suggest, as critic Godfrey Cheshire posits, that suicide is an act that requires more than one person? Why does Badii need someone’s help to kill himself? Why does it feel like he needs their permission or their blessing to do this? Kiarostami is constantly thinking about human entanglement in the context of both life, and death. Like the kids that Badii passes at the beginning of the film, you begin by “playing cars,” full of excitement, emulating the imagined freedoms of adulthood, until the slow despair of existence catches up with you. You develop a growing comfort with demise to the point where you demand it.

Does he die in the end? If he does, will anyone come to bury him? From a distance, we see him taking some pills and turning out the lights in his apartment before taking a taxi back to the top of the hill. After Badii lies down in the hole, he stares up at the moon as the dark clouds pass over it. The screen fades to darkness, and save for a few flashes of lighting, the only thing we see is black as the rain starts. When it too fades away, we sit in darkness for a moment.

Have you ever thought about suicide? What did you imagine would come after? Did it matter? Maybe you begin to wonder what everyone else in the audience is thinking about during this pitch black.

And then we start to hear the sound of soldiers counting. Out of the emptiness emerges video tape footage of the army troupe we saw earlier, marching up the hillside. Is this heaven? A return to Badii’s most cherished memory? Just as we ask the question, a man with a camera walks by, followed by someone with a tripod. We hear Kiarostami’s voice, directing the army men over a walkie talkie, telling them to take a break. We see him doing this. We are suddenly being given access to what’s happening behind the camera. Is this a coda unrelated to the story, or is it to be taken as part of the thread of the film?

Kiarostami has talked about how this moment is meant to pull us out of the ending of Badii’s story and remind us that what we’ve seen is “just a tale,” a mere piece of fiction. Even if that is the case, is it not true that there are people who, in the darkest moments of their life, have felt the way Badii does? Could someone have even made this film if they didn’t have their own deep confrontations with the concept of suicide? The feelings that Kiarostami is grappling with in this film are very real, and if we recognize that, what does this epilogue tell us about how he views the afterlife? Perhaps this is what comes after. It seems a surprisingly earthly utopia: A place where someone, confronted with the idea that life may not be worth living can channel that feeling into art-making. Perhaps that is his heaven then, a life where I can, and you can, if we’re lucky enough, create art, and enjoy the taste of cherries. Despite the macabre goal, Kiarostami still arrives at what feels like a positive conclusion, and one that appeals to a filmmaker’s sensibilities. The film didn’t just play at Cannes in 1997, it shared the the Palme d’Or win for that year—and when you dig into what this self-reflexive ending is really hinting at, you understand why.

One of the most remarkable themes that comes up in Kiarostami’s work again and again is the idea of a character playing a role that will help turn them into the person that they are meant to become. We saw it in Close-Up, where the con man reenacts his real-life deception, confronting both the family he tricked and the man whose identity he stole. It’s a hybrid fiction where all the characters are played by non-actors who experienced these events themselves, acting  them out almost like kids on a stage, in a kind of healing catharsis. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami depicts a film within a film, focusing on a young man who lands a part in a movie, playing a shrill husband against a local girl that he actually has a crush on. Between takes, he promises her that if they were together, he would never yell at her like the man in this scene. Acting out the harsh moments of life seems to prepare them for when those moments will inevitably arrive in reality.

In Taste of Cherry, this is happening off-camera. It turns out there’s another reason why we never see Badii and his passengers together in a single frame while in the car: Kiarostami chose to sit in the opposite seat behind the camera for each side of the conversation. He played the role of the passengers while the camera was turned on Badii and for the reverse angle, he played Badii. In fact, the young men who play the first two passengers never even met Ershadi on set—they were simply responding to Kiarostami in the driver’s seat. When you see the passengers, Kiarostami is Badii, trying to convince them to let him kill himself. When you see Badii, Kiarostami is the scared soldier, the religious scholar, and the life-affirming old man. In playing the parts of the people that are trying to save him, he is coming closer to their outlook on life. Throughout the decades of interviews that have followed, Kiarostami’s been silent about the idea that this film was borne out his own contemplations of suicide, but it’s not hard to imagine that this was his way of saving himself.

Kiarostami’s films are so often concerned with the business of being alive that this film and its plea for death stands apart from the rest of his body of work. I started watching his movies for the first time during a 2016 retrospective and connected so quickly and so deeply to them that it was a genuine shock when he passed away only months later. Experiencing this kind of profound discovery and loss in such close proximity was a complex feeling, to say the least, but during that summer my sadness was quickly followed by wonder as I continued to dig through his films. There’s a certain, inescapable magic you experience when an artist’s work very specifically feels like it exists to comfort you during the time of their passing. That’s what Taste of Cherry felt like for me. If being able to create art was heaven for Kiarostami, then I could take comfort in the fact that he had made more than a few trips to Paradise. 

That was four years ago, and despite my voracious appetite, I still haven’t been through his full filmography. Every single one I’ve seen so far unravels some new mystery about what it means to be human. Like a beautiful conversation with a gentle stranger on a park bench, or in this case, the passenger seat of your car. Even as the years roll by, I hold on to the rest of those films, and those conversations, saving them for when I most need reminding of how to be alive.