To understand and appreciate the films of Iranian writer and director Abbas Kiarostami, the modern world as we know it today mostly lies behind the windshield of our automobile traveling familiar roads or an unexpected journey. We see the fast moving colors and textures outside while insulated within our stationary bucket seats while driving. Some of the best conversations can take place within the confines of such a road trip. Unexpected pleasures derive speeding through unknown landscapes, the mind swiftly taking in such delights. Life can change in an instant or remain unmoved within our safe automobile haven. Kiarostami understood this all too well and presented audiences a world unfamiliar, but familiar all the same.
The camera has very little room in which to move inside a car. Static shots head on from the hood are the norm, because it is easier to mount a camera in front to point and shoot. Kiarostami uses such shots sparingly and chooses to surprise audiences with shots within the cramped accommodations of his cars which seem to place us sitting right next to his characters. Pay close attention in these scenes for the cutting between shots of his characters seems virtually invisible. The editing flows so naturally with the conversations, as well as with the quiet times, that the mind hardly registers any cuts and it comes across as one long single take. The cuts are timed with the story’s momentum and mood. It never calls attention to itself, lest it distract the audience from the story being presented.
The car represents the interior world of Kiarostami’s characters, while the world is reflected off the glass that we stare out in pain, loneliness, confusion, or some existential crisis. The windshield can show a character’s wishes or hide their darkness inside. Many shots are layered in such a way to show how the world outside can be memories rising to the surface or even past trauma’s whose wounds have reopened and cut so very deep. It is the director’s palette in which he paints a wordless story across the safety glass encasing his principals. Many of his films make the car a central motif in a character’s climatic appraisal of his and her place in the world and with others.
Behind the wheel of a car is a place of journey, traveling to some self awareness or state of being. Kiarostami loved placing his characters in such close confines of each other in which to agitate or spark some new insight. It brings the actors closer to us, the audience, and makes us pay attention to even the smallest detail, for Kiarostami never put anything on screen without meaning. When watching his films, you begin to understand how subtly subversive his cinema is. The entire beginning of his 2012 Like Someone In Love shows a busy bar of couples and service attendants without showing who is talking on screen about not lying. We search the frame for who is saying these words, but the person is nowhere to be found. It is only after several minutes more of this phone conversation about lying to their significant other about their whereabouts, do we slowly pull back and reveal the culprit talking all this time. Kiarostami “lies” to us in his shot by not giving us the standard introduction of one of the main characters, but chooses to make us believe we are seeing the person talking somewhere in the busy bar shot. It is clever and undermines our expectations of films in general.
If the car is the microcosm of what is safe and ideal in our internal lives, then the world outside the windshield is a lumbering giant of contradictions, violence, and lost dreams. It may be that the illusion outside of the car is what we want or aspire to be, but it is an illusion nonetheless. We build our internal lives on experiences and the people we meet. It is both the good and the bad that shapes who we are, to which the car in Kiarostami’s films is the filter to make sense of it all. It is not a bubble in any sense of that meaning, for the world consistently pours into that filter on four wheels. Most interesting is how these characters react and absorb the intrusions upon their interior world.
The journey of a hero can take on any form in history, so it is befitting for the automobile to be the modern journey for Kiarostami. The themes of retribution, renewal, and reflection with the exterior world whisking by in painterly colors. It is the clever contradiction of an idea for quiet reflection amidst a busy street or fast rolling landscape. It works because it places a laser focus on the occupants within and their struggles. It manages to be realistic and cinematic at the same time.
Abbas Kiarostami died on July 4, 2016 in Paris, France. He left an indelible humanist stamp on cinema and on his home country of Iran. He involved himself with over forty films, with many short films and documentaries. He was intensely interested in humans and their innate ability to absorb, but protect themselves from the world. His style, if you will, was deceptively quiet. His choice of editing, lack of music, use of silence, and the devastating framing of his shots can build up to such a crescendo of emotional violence. He was a consummate filmmaker and created a journey in film that we all need to experience.