How Abbas Kiarostami Had Me Thinking in Persian.

That’s the title of A. O. Scott’s fine NY Times tribute to one of the greatest directors of my lifetime, and you can see why it caught my eye when my brother sent it to me (thanks, Eric!). I was particularly glad because I hadn’t intended to post on Kiarostami’s passing, although it hit me even harder than Yves Bonnefoy’s (I had been hoping for late masterpieces) — after all, this isn’t a movie blog — but the Scott piece gives me a language hook; he was in Cartagena, Colombia, teaching a workshop in cultural journalism, and Kiarostami was there for a local film festival:

The plan was that Mr. Kiarostami and I would converse with the aid of his translator, since the filmmaker’s English was apparently only a little better than my Farsi. The unforeseen wrinkle was that the translator spoke only Farsi and Spanish, the first language of most of my students and, of course, the idiom of the country where we all happened to be.

But we could hardly just stand around smiling and nodding. A game of multilingual telephone ensued. I would hand off an English question to one of the translators, who passed along a Spanish version that would reach Mr. Kiarostami in his native language, at which point the process reversed. The remarkable thing is not that we managed to keep this clumsy human version of Google Translate going for much longer than the allotted hour, as we ate pistachios and sipped limeade in a humid courtyard, but that after a while it seemed like an utterly natural form of communication.

Viewers of foreign-language films sometimes forget that they are reading subtitles instead of understanding what the actors are saying. Something similar happened that evening, a hallucinatory melting of linguistic barriers. I remembered a few phrases of long-ago college Spanish, and so could now and then skip a step in the translators’ bucket brigade. Mr. Kiarostami’s translator was as quick and nimble as an Olympic athlete, and Mr. Kiarostami himself was as patient as a teacher in a roomful of earnest slow learners. But afterward many of us agreed that we had experienced something much stranger and more profound than a successful search for verbal equivalents. We swore that for a short but intense period, under the spell of the filmmaker’s quiet charisma, we had all been thinking in Persian.

How I would like to have been there! And this paragraph resonated with me for literary reasons:

More recently, Iranian films have moved toward psychological drama and social criticism, neither of which figured among Mr. Kiarostami’s major concerns. This is not to say that he was indifferent to the emotions of his characters or their circumstances, but rather that he viewed the world and its human inhabitants from a particular philosophical angle, a curiosity both about the texture of reality and about the camera’s effect on it. His movies are at once highly self-conscious — the viewer is often intensely aware of the presence of the camera, and occasionally of the man behind it — and bluntly naturalistic.

This is exactly (mutatis mutandis) what I keep complaining about in the development of Russian literature in the 1840s: it moved toward psychological drama and social criticism, leaving behind the wonderful writers (like my man Veltman) who had other concerns.

Anyone interested in giving Kiarostami a try should start with the Koker trilogy (Where Is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees), which become more and more self-reflexive without in the least losing their eye for human and social reality; then you might move on to Close-Up, one of the most brilliant modernist movies I’ve ever seen (and no, I’m not going to try to define modernism, but I know it when I see it).


  1. In the mid-90s, my first encounter with Kiarostami was a retrospective put on by a foreign-movies club with a truly horrible VCR projection system. Through those smeary, bizarrely-colored images and those half-legible subtitles, I followed Kiarostami’s explorations of the tempo and sense of life. The narratives are so minimal that they can seem dry but the concern is not action, it’s interaction of people and place, and questions of perception. These movies are notable for avoiding pretty.landscapes and lush images.

  2. Oh, he has some pretty.landscapes, but yes, his emphasis is where you say it is.

  3. the multi-language translation “bucket brigade” reminds me of an incident in one of Pico Iyer’s books. He was in Japan, translating (IIRC) into English via Spanish. And nearly everybody else present spoke English well enough (better than his Spanish — polyglot though he is).

    But being Japanese, they didn’t want to lose face by being seen to translate poorly. Hence the rigmarole.

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