the wind will carry us

The nameless Kurdish village where Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us takes place is one of the most unforgettable places the movies have ever taken me.  From the film’s opening, a sweeping panorama of the Iranian countryside, with its hyper-green fields and endless hills, I was hypnotized.  In this scene, we meet what are ostensibly the film’s main characters, a man named Behzad and his friends.  They drive past jaw-dropping beauty, blabbing about nothing like a gang of seven-year-olds at an art museum, completely unaware of what they’re missing.  Why they’re here we never really know, and some of them we never even see.  What we do see for the next two hours is a place so rich and so complex, it’s practically a credited character.  In every scene, the camera lingers on enormous trees, herds of goats, and stone houses that have probably been there since the birth of Christ.  It’s a reminder of the cinema’s power to transport, transform, and transfix.

It is no surprise that I should be thinking about the cinema itself as I write this review, since Kiarostami is deeply concerned with the role of movies in making sense of modern life.  Many of his works are explicitly about filmmaking, and nearly all of them blur the line between fiction and documentary.  His attention to these themes includes casting nonprofessional actors in major roles, always taking the time to get to know them well, even the extras. He has remained close with many of them for more than a decade.

But if Kiarostami is a highly “ethical” filmmaker, one who always respects the people and places he films, The Wind Will Carry Us shows him in an uneasy relationship with his own profession.  In the village, Behzad is the strangest of outsiders; the villagers seem a little afraid whenever he is nearby, and they refer to him simply as “engineer” (in Iran, “engineer” can mean any technical profession).  We never find out exactly why he is there, but he seems to be some kind of filmmaker, sent to the middle of nowhere to document the death of a 100 year-old woman.  It’s obvious that he has no respect for the village.  He is rude to the boy who supplies him with most of his information about the old woman, and in one beautifully disturbing scene he flips a tortoise upside-down and leaves it to die (though it manages to save itself).  He complains that his crew of assistants is never around – just as Kiarostami often complained that his cinematographers were never there when he needed them.  Is Behzad meant to be Kiarostami’s alter ego?

At the center of this movie, which has events but no real plot, is the scene where Behzad travels underground, and perhaps back in time.  He wants milk, so a young woman leads him to the damp cave where her cow lives.  The camera never shows us her face (she’s one of at least fourteen characters we hear but never see), but it captures the sensuousness of her red gown and the mysterious shadows of the animal’s home.  As she works, she recites for Behzad the poem that gives the film its title, an ode to despair and redemption by Iran’s greatest female poet, Forough Farrokhzad. Always critical of himself and his art, Kiarostami confronts the same questions that haunted Farrokhzad in the fifties, and that have haunted Iran for the last century.  What to do with machines that threaten the traditional way of life?  What will happen to the rural countryside that has inspired the country for centuries?  What is the relationship between art and the inevitable progress of technology?

Wisely, Kiarostami doesn’t provide clear answers to all these questions.  His film is a mystery, but one without much of a solution (strange to think that it was released in the same year as Fight Club and The Sixth Sense!).  Life and death, nature and science, love and cruelty, the visual and the cerebral can all be found here in equal measure.  The greatest mystery in this movie of a thousand mysteries?  In temperament, The Wind Will Carry Us is one of the oldest and wisest films I’ve ever seen, but somehow, it manages to feel like one of the freshest and most relevant.

The Wind Will Carry Us screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center  Wednesday February 13th, Friday February 15th, and Sunday February 17th.