An end-of-the-road movie, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry opens with an Iranian man driving around in his car. Actually, a great deal of the movie consists of the Iranian man driving around in his car, either by himself or with various passengers he picks up along the way. At first, we think the man is looking for sex; he cruises through a group of unemployed laborers like a shark swimming through a school of tuna. But that turns out to be the last thing the man is looking for. At the end of his rope, he would like to kill himself, but he doesn't quite have the means. He's dug a hole near the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of Teheran, and he has an ample supply of sleeping pills. But he needs someone to come along the next day and throw some dirt over his body. Even in death, he needs what he may have needed in life: a helping hand. In the therapeutic United States, suicide is considered a veiled or not-so-veiled call for help. In theocratic Iran, it's considered one of the deadly sins--so sayeth the Koran and the imams. In which case the man isn't just shuffling off this mortal coil, as Hamlet once described it; he could be shuffling off his immortal soul. That may be why he's rather picky about who he lets in his car. Like a medieval morality play, Taste of Cherry presents the man with three symbolic candidates for the gravedigger's job: a young soldier, a slightly older seminary student and an elderly taxidermist. Without yanking on the movie's realistic tone, the passengers represent youth, middle and old age. They also represent the social order, the religious community and what we might call the humanistic approach to life (and death) in contemporary Iran. The young soldier, who may have been prepared to surrender his body for a fee, isn't prepared to surrender his soul; he takes off running the first chance he gets. The seminarian isn't prepared to surrender his soul either, but he listens to the man, perhaps even feels his pain. As for the taxidermist, he not only feels the man's pain (he once considered suicide himself but got distracted by the taste of a mulberry), he's willing to do something about it, if only because he needs the money to buy some medical care for his ailing granddaughter. And there you have it--idealism being brought down to earth by pragmatism, with most people (like the soldier) preferring to avoid the question altogether. But Kiarostami is nothing if not a questioner, and he frames his questions as a quest--a quest for annihilation. That makes the movie sound almost too schematic--a modern-day fairy tale with an antihero instead of a hero. But Taste of Cherry is, in fact, as richly allusive as a novel by James Joyce, despite being set in the sere, austere landscape of Iran. Consider the man's Sisyphean climbs up that hill, the road winding itself to infinity, the man unwinding himself to zero. And what better setting for a movie about dust returning to dust than a quarry, which kicks up tons of dust in order to reveal something a little more solid? (In one scene, the man ruefully watches a dump truck pour a bed-full of dirt on what, if he'd only planned properly, might have been his dead body.) Finally, there are the lengthening shadows and the sun ducking its head below the horizon as the man, in more ways than one, runs out of time.
We never find out whether the man accomplishes his mission. (I've read that the ending had to be changed in order to avoid offending Islamic fundamentalists.) Nor do we find out why he set off on his mission in the first place. Compare this oblique, philosophical approach to, say, a TV movie of the week starring Tony Danza as Dr. Kevorkian. Kiarostami, who also wrote, edited and produced Taste of Cherry, has become an international critics' darling by combining a formalist approach (I won't give away the movie's it's-only-a-movie ending) with a decidedly informalist approach--scenarios instead of scripts, nonprofessional actors and a faith in the richness of poverty as a cinematic subject. Here, he suggests that a mere taste of cherry is enough to make life worth living. If he'd said Taste of Cherry, few cinephiles would disagree.