Thoughts and other trivia...

Friday, April 13, 2007

Running up that hill

I was talking to my friend last week about Abbas Kiarostami's film The Wind Will Carry Us, which I saw last Sunday. We were discussing how some films just keep getting better in our know, the more you think about them, the better you seem to understand and appreciate them...because they have so many layers and one needs time to fathom and absorb them all. This was one of those films and, as I continue to think about it, what a film it's turning out to be :-) Of course, there are some things that I'm still trying to figure out and understand but, yeah, it is an absolutely wonderful film.

The story is simple...well, not quite...on the face of it at least, it is. Behzad and a couple of his colleagues travel to this quaint little village in the countryside. There, he strikes up a rapport with a young, school-going boy, Farzad, who goes on to become Behzad's guide around the place. The purpose of the men's visit is never clearly stated but, it's obvious, whatever their business, they're keen to keep it under wraps. In fact, they even resort to misinformation, telling Farzad that he should answer villagers' queries by telling them that the men are there to look for some secret treasure. Yet, we are also made aware that they are interested in the "house with the blue window", where an "old invalid" lives and who, according to Farzad, is about "100-150 years old". It is also evident that the men are here on an assignment that involves shooting for some kind of film and Behzad is constantly requesting Farzad for updates on the old lady's health. Oblique references suggest that he and his colleagues are waiting for the old lady to die. Because, and again, this comes to us by suggestion and association, apparently, the post-death ritual is what they are interested in filming. In the end, we believe, the old lady dies and Behzad is able to click some photographs.

While this is the scope of the 'story', the time that Behzad spends in the village, and his interactions with the various people there, makes up the bulk of the film and accounts for what happens in it by way of action. Besides little Farzad, who is forever rushing either to school or from it, where he seems to be writing some exam or the other all the time, Behzad has regular conversations with the sharp-tongued lady who owns and runs a tea stall, with Farzad's erudite school teacher, with the much pregnant lady across his living quarters and with the ditch-digger.

The film opens in the vast openness of the countryside, as we watch a car drive through the hills. The occupants of the car are relying on sighting, first, a solitary, giant, Godotesque tree on a hill as their landmark. Then, once they've gone past it, they're supposed to look out for two solitary trees! With the kind of directions they've been given, maybe one should've immediately realised that the objective of their visit would be just as bizarre. Anyway, they finally reach the appointed place and meet their contact, Farzad, who then takes them to his village. The village is something of a marvel, not just architecturally, but also in terms of its appearance. It is built into the side of a hill and, perhaps, as an attempt at camouflage, is painted off-white like the hill itself. As Farzad explains, it is so coloured so that no can "steal" it. Yet, quite inexplicably, the white village is known as the Black Valley!

Behzad and his colleagues are perceived to be telecommunication engineers and, in fact, the villagers even address Behzad as Engineer but he does nothing to correct this impression. Their employer, a lady, is in constant touch with them over the cellphone that Behzad has taken on hire for the assignment. And, each time he receives a call, Behzad has to run to his car and drive quickly out of the village, to higher ground, because the signal is very weak in the village. This 'higher ground' is at the top of a small hill, just outside the village, which also serves as the cemetery. It's funny, in the beginning at least, to watch Behzad leap into his car and drive hastily out to the higher ground, over a bumpy, makeshift road. We empathise with his desperation to speak with the caller because, clearly, much depends on it for Behzad but, at the same time, we also feel baulked at being denied any clear information about what it is that he and his colleagues are doing in the village. Anyway, each time after he has finished his call, Behzad engages in a little chat with a man who says he is digging a ditch up there. When asked, the man says that he is working for he "telecommunications" department and has been assigned this task of digging a ditch, although he has no idea what it is for. He says he receives his orders from his boss, whom he does not know. So, a solitary man is working for a government department, taking instructions from a boss he does not know, doing a job he cannot explain? Hmm. Then, the "telecommunications" department is having a ditch dug up on a hill...a ditch that runs through a cemetery? Hmm. Kafka would've been so proud. As though this were not enough, we never even see this ditch-digging blighter!

But, he's not the only one we don't see. Except for the two (or, was it three?) occasions, when we see them as distant figures on the road, or through the rear view mirror, we never get to see Behzad's colleagues either! We hear them talk, alright...but we hardly ever set eyes on them. Then the old lady, who they've come for all the way and who is the somewhat focal point of the 'story', is also only a name to us...Mrs Malek. We never see her. We see her house, we see her son but never her. We also don't get to see Behzad's employer, the lady from Tehran, with whom he has so many conversations over the phone. While this doesn't bother us too much, we do get caught up with Behzad's frustration a little bit because nothing really happens in the film. As Estragon says so eloquently...nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. Waiting for the old lady to die, if that's what they're waiting for, is quite like waiting for Godot...the moment never seems to arrive! It proves to be so frustrating, in fact, that Behzad's unseen colleagues are unable to handle it and sneak quietly away, leaving him to handle the assignment alone.

In what can be best described as a bizarre but an outstanding sequence, Behzad lands up in a house in the village, where the ditch-digger's girlfriend Zehnab stays. He is desperate for some fresh milk for breakfast and is directed towards the basement, where, he's told, Zehnab will give it to him. He walks tentatively down the dark, narrow passage where, after a moment, it gets pitch dark. Absolutely black. Suddenly Zehnab appears and he repeats his request for milk. As she starts to milk the cow (or, was it a goat?), Behzad starts reciting a poem about loneliness by Forugh Farrokhzad, The Wind Will Carry Us, from which the film also gets its name. Through the recitation, Zehnab continues to milk the cow, half turned away from the camera. The poem itself, the lingering shadows that seem ready to creep up on Zehnab, Behzad's manner...everything gives the sequences a sense of eeriness...of expectation, sensuality, foreboding and an edginess, if you please. It's almost disconcerting, this sequence, but it is also quite brilliant.

There's something Kafkaesque about this film, something Beckettian, something of the Absurd...and, yet, if I may push this a bit, something of a parable too, I think.

Following one of his phone conversations on the hill, Behzad realises that his ditch-digger friend is in trouble...the whole place has caved in and, unless he is rescued quickly, the man may be buried alive. Panic-stricken, he rushes into his car and drives speedily down towards the village, urging all and sundry to rush up to help the man. After he has alerted two or three different groups of men, you expect him to swing his car around and head back up the hill and to help with the rescue operation. Instead, he drives into the village to look for his colleagues, who he is told have packed up and left. Finally, he does go back to the hill but by then the man has already been saved. Behzad volunteers the use of his car to transport the injured man to the hospital and hands over the keys to the villagers. He gets a ride back to the village with the old doctor, who has an old motorcycle. They discuss many things on the way, including the injured man and his chances of survival, the old lady, Mrs Malek, who is dying in the village and they also talk about death in general. According to the doctor, a wise old man, we die when we close our eyes to the world around us. No one has seen the afterlife and no one has come back to confirm the promise of beauty and happiness we're told it offers. Our happiness lies in the present, in the here and now. And that, "the gift of today is better than the promise of tomorrow"...or words to that effect.

Each time we see Behzad rush to the top of the hill in his car, we see a bumpy, dusty road around him. Yet, when he is riding back with the doctor, we see lovely golden fields on either side of the path, with the corn swaying merrily in the breeze, suggesting that Behzad has closed his eyes to the world. He is so caught with himself and his own life that he is unable to appreciate the beauty in the world...which is what being alive is all about, isn't it? To enjoy our time and to make the most of the present. But, then, does this also mean that all those who remain nameless, voiceless and faceless characters in the film are so simply because Behzad doesn't see them? That his eyes are closed not only to the world but also to the people around him?

Kiarostami doesn't bother with tying up the loose ends. He obviously believes that it is up to the viewer to receive what s/he can from his films. He leaves his films open to interpretation. So, if one finds that his film has raised some questions, usually, one will have to find one's own answers too. Because Kiarostami is not always going to give them to us.

In a small way, the film is also about a city man getting an education in the countryside...from the young Farzad, who refuses to lie; from Farzad's school teacher, who tells him about the bizarre social custom of women scratching and scarring themselves in order to prove their love for someone; from the lady who runs the tea shop, about equality of women and about dignity of labour; from his pregnant neighbour, who gets back to work a day after delivering her tenth child, about getting on with it; and, finally, the old doctor, who gives him a lesson or two about life itself.

The film is as much about life as it is about death, with the images of, and references to, the latter never being in short supply.

This is not a simple, straightforward film. On the contrary, it is pretty complex and challenging. It's just the kind of film that forces you to replay the many beautiful images of the countryside in your mind, to think of the many questions that pop-up in your mind, to wonder, and to try and stay alive to the simple truth and beauty of life around us.

From the time I came out after watching the film, till the time I got home...or even later in the night...the doctor's words kept playing over and over in my head.

* For those who may be interested, the Forugh Farrokhzad's poem, The Wind Will Carry Us, can be found here.


Blogger Ricercar said...

i loved this movie!

8:40 pm  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ok so now we got the screenplay, how about the review? :-D

10:52 pm  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

RICERCAR: I know, you did mention it once. :-) It's just a super movie, isn't it?

TR: :-) See, back when when I was growing up, they hadn't yet become familiar enough with the word 'brevity' to teach us. So, why should I suffer alone? :-)

11:29 am  
Blogger austere said...

This was beautiful, thanks for sharing. Quite the pc thing to say, eh.

Till you described the corn in the fields, I thought this was b & w.

On an unconnected note, maybe, you have seen "Meenakshi , a tale of three cities?"

4:10 pm  
Anonymous chandni said...

lovely review GOTJ! Haven't seen it but definitely would like to...anf the poem is good too!

11:50 am  
Blogger Blue Athena said...

Well well! That was some storytelling. I like how your ATD is so amazing.

The pome, yes! :)

1:52 pm  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

AUSTERE: Nah, we don't care to be politically correct here. Ever. :-)

Now that you mention it, yeah, the film may well have been B/W till then. No, haven't seen 'Meenaxi'. Is it good? In fact, haven't see any of M F Hussain although I was told to go and watch 'Gajagamini'.

CHANDNI: Thanks :-) Maybe you'll be able to get these, and other Iranian films, at the Iran Cultural Centre. Or, on second thoughts, maybe not...

BLUE ATHENA: To the technology- and terminology-challenged, modern terms like ATD are tough to decipher :-) Thanks :-) Did you like the poem? She is quite something, this Iranian lady.

11:25 am  
Blogger Sonia said...

So have you watched any other movies * whistling innocently* ?!

3:26 pm  
Anonymous raghu ram prasad said...

really nice blog ......visit me my blog also

5:55 pm  
Blogger wise donkey said...

its all about the journey and not the destination, just like the film u wrote about in the previous post..
i liked the thought of not showing faces..

2:08 pm  
Blogger Someone along the Way said...

nice! :)

4:47 pm  
Blogger km said...

@what TR said: "but he forgot the camera angles!!!!" :D

//just kidding, Ghost.

///Eagerly awaiting the 10,000-word review on Kiarostami's short films.

6:48 am  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

SONIA: So, are you watching your back, Soniaji? *whistling innocently and polishing rusty daggers*

RAGHU RAM PRASAD: I will, if you'll only tell me how and where.


SHRI KM: Oh, we don't mind the kidding but it's the requests we take seriously...the next 'review' is coming up pretty soon! :-)

10:33 pm  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@KM: Movie makers reviewing movies is sort of like techies reviewing technology.

4:13 am  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Seen Ekhrajiha yet? Lots of good reviews.

4:24 am  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

MT: :-) "Movie makers" will continue reviewing movies till such time as they have something better to write about. Watching movies is about as exciting as life can get at the moment. Sigh! :-)

No, haven't seen Ekhrajiha...just heard some good things about it. maybe I should ask the film club people to get a print or copy. Thanks.

10:13 am  
Blogger Sonia said...


12:25 pm  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

SONIAJI: Hmm, I see that all the innocent whistling has ceased. Perhaps the threat of dire consequences has had the desired effect ;-)

12:45 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

"pffft" is the effect you were looking for? :P


8:01 pm  
Anonymous ash said...

will come back and read it later. Hope you are doing well old friend.. :D

12:22 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:11 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

so ash thinks you're old as well?! :P

4:14 pm  
Anonymous Livin said...

Isn't it time you wrote and updated your blog? Reviews, views, thoughts, whatsoever. Write. Wonder what's keeping you so pre-occupied? :)

9:10 am  
Anonymous sanjana said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:11 pm  
Blogger oliver said...

hmph. how long do i wait for a new post?

2:25 am  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...


7:46 pm  
Anonymous chandni said...

acchha why arent u writing new posts? am bored...

12:47 pm  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

bhoot! bhoot!

8:59 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

you should be ashamed of yourself! NO POST SINCE APRIL!

9:40 am  
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4:18 pm  

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