Reality, Identity, Ambiguity

Abbas Kiarostami, NYC, 10/5/12

Abbas Kiarostami, NYC, 10/5/12

In the films of the great director Abbas Kiarostami, cinematic illusion has always kept company with reality.  His films are real, true yet simultaneously ambiguous and mysterious and the border between characters’ actual and seeming identities is porous.

In Kiarostami’s second film shot outside of his native Iran, “Like Someone In Love,” Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a sociology student in Tokyo, makes ends meet by working as a call girl.  (My college friends and I dressed less provocatively at work–blue and white houndstooth shifts and hair nets–as we dished out ice cream and fried food at a Howard Johnson’s in upstate New York).

Meeting her latest date at his apartment in the suburbs, Akiko is surprised when the door is opened by Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a courtly, elderly widowed academic who wants to cook her dinner but inadvertently ignores her, giving his attention to work-related phone calls.  Bored, she curls up in his bed.

Visually this is not Ozu’s Tokyo but there are echoes of the distance between the generations chronicled by the Japanese master in Akiko’s inability to find time to see her grandmother, in Tokyo for just the day.  Yet the following morning in Tokyo when her hot-headed boyfriend mistakes Takashi for her grandfather, she seamlessly assumes her new role, as does the elderly man.

Kiarostami’s films have always been characterized by a contemplative pace, partially improvised dialog working off loosely written scripts and the casting of non-professional actors.  Tadashi Okuno, a theater actor, not entirely unfamilar with the filmmaking process, had spent 50 years as an extra, never saying a line, until cast in “Like Someone in Love.”  Offered another part in an upcoming film, Kiarostami  said that Okuno declined, wanting “to go back into the background.”

And a lot of driving occurs in Kiarostami’s films.  He said that all of his other films “were misuses of the car,”* were “practice for this film, the young woman and the old man together. The car is the best place to have a conversation.  It’s intimate, private, yet you don’t have to look at each other.  And no one can leave.”

I photographed Abbas Kiarostami for the first time in 1997 when “Taste of Cherry” screened at the New York Film Festival and not again until 2012 when he accompanied “Like Someone in Love” to NYFF.  He had not visited the United States often in the intervening years, once denied a visa in the hysteria and xenophobia of 2002, when “Ten” was included in NYFF.

In protest Aki Kaurismaki (whose “The Man With No Past” was also slated for NYFF) stayed home in Finland.  To my few non film-obsessed freinds, my upsetting  news/the names must have sounded like gibberish: “Abbas Kiarostami denied entry to this country so Aki Kausimaki has refused to attend”–it elicited a confused, “Whaaaaa?”

*Presumptuous of me, I know, to disagree, but I think (at the very least) both “Ten” and “Taste of Cherry” (winner of the Palme d’Or in 1997) were not “misuses of the car.”

“Like Someone In Love” will open today in New York and Los Angeles and will be available on demand February 21.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective, “A Close-up of Abbas Kiarostami” continues through February 17.

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