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Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

   

    The third film in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostamiís unofficial trilogy of films set in the rural region surrounding the town of Koker, Through the Olive Trees extends the themes present in the previous two films to the point of emotionally numbing, if intellectually admirable, redundancy. A fictional film that chronicles the shooting of one scene of Life and Nothing More..., the previous work in the trilogy, Trees bites off considerably less than its predecessor, leaving it with precious little to chew over. Self-reflexive to a fault, it begins with an announcement from the lead actor that heíll be playing the director of the ďfictionalĒ film, and immediately the question springs to mind as to why Kiarostami doesnít play himself here. A straightforward documentary would be the most logical way to illustrate the existence of truth behind the story that he told, but he needlessly follows up one form of narrative subterfuge here with another, pushing the audience away from the ďtruthĒ (which admittedly might be unattainable anyway).

   

    Thereís nothing thatís fundamentally dishonest in Kiarostamiís approach, but his lack of forthrightness still frustrates at times. Though by all accounts Kiarostami is a modest, exemplary human being, the scenes where he shows his surrogate hanging out with the local children and talking to them about the virtues of cooperation, I found myself cringing. His modesty is refreshing in contrast to the giant egos that seem to define so many other major directors, but it feels misplaced and slightly patronizing. For example, in one scene, his production assistant is driving to the set and is delayed by a construction crew that is blocking the road she needs to take with their equipment. A brief exchange occurs, and the implication is made that the work of the carpenters is just as important as that of the filmmakers. While that sentiment is somewhat noble, itís also horribly reductive and essentially untrue. Itís hard to complain about a director who exhibits the sort of sensitivity that Kiarostami does, but when there arenít fresh ideas accompanying those sentiments, itís just as hard to accept his self-anointed veneration.

   

    Like the simplistic first entry in the series, Where is the Friend's Home?, this film suffers by association with Kiarostamiís Life and Nothing More... (his best work, in my estimation).  Since that masterpiece had so much to say about the inadequacy of film to capture the miraculous nature of life, this one's meditations on the same subject matter pale in comparison. The central relationship, between two of the actors in Life..., isnít exactly boring, but the filmís rapt attention to it is disappointing since they were just bit players in the epic landscape of the previous film. Worse still, the silent, coy mistress feels like a literary conceit, and her presence undermines the impression that the coupleís relationship is meant to reflect real life. The marriage proposal story that Kiarostami created for LifeÖ is more moving than the one here, though maybe thatís the point and a testament to the directorís artistry (though if that is his point, then I would object to his self-congratulatory message). In LifeÖ, Kiarostami crafted their story into a short, simple, hugely uplifting parable about the way that life carries on in the face of death. Here, he offers a boondoggle and expects the audience to cheer the comparative lack of artistry. Nonetheless, the superb final shot, which does more to damn Kiarostami's switch to digital than any critic could, almost makes the trek worth it.

   

* * 1/2 

01-14-03 

Jeremy Heilman