Note: This review is part of InRO's "Directrospective #10 - Abbas Kiarostami's Self-Reflexive Cinema."
Future Iranian arthouse figurehead Abbas Kiarostami arrived in 1974 not only with his first feature-length film, but also a set of stylistic and thematic inclinations he's spent the better part of three decades refining and expanding upon. It wasn't until this year’s very different yet equally noteworthy "Certified Copy" that Kiarostami largely broke away from the distinguishing, highly influential stylistic conceits that had marked a majority of his narrative work from the beginning of his career. This makes the neo-realist inspired "The Traveler" not only a key work for Kiarostami, but a bellwether for many of the trends which would come to be the norm in various strains of '90s world independent and arthouse cinema. It's convenient to make these connections in retrospect, but it's equally easy to forget Kiarostami was all but unknown in the West prior to the early '90s, when a few intuitive festival programmers brought highly idiosyncratic works to Locarno and Toronto, and where a handful of key critics, including Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (to my mind, the two foremost authorities on Kiarostami), were finally able to absorb a sizable chunk of Kiarostami's work in close succession, thus bringing a new movement even then being dubbed the "Iranian New Wave" to the States for the very first time, decades after its inception.
Many of the charms of "The Traveler," then, work best in relation to Kiarostami's later work: his sympathy for ostracized children, his predilection for single-minded protagonists, a contemptuous regard for Iran’s capital, Tehran, and a stark, observational visual sense—all are in evidence across the film's succinct 70-odd minutes. It's a beautiful, tragicomic story in its own right, but as the first in what would become a succession of variations on a formula, it stands as a vital assemblage of natural inclinations, most of which Kiarostami would hone-in on later, and a handful which remain unique to the "The Traveler." Set largely within the classroom and across various rural locales, “The Traveler” establishes these as Kiarostami’s two major filmic environments—nearly every narrative (and in many cases, documentary) he’s made since centers in some way on these backdrops (either that or in moving vehicles), associated, naturally, with the age of his main characters.
The protagonist of “The Traveler”, a grade school student named Hassan Darabi, has a seemingly simple goal: to attend a soccer match in Tehran. The fact that he has no bus or ticket fare doesn’t pose much of problem; as Kiarostami would later embellish into a major theme, the boy is committed to his plan and will see it through no matter what obstacles are set forth. In this case, that results in tricking his classmates into paying for photographs when his camera, in fact, has no film. These instinctual traits are analogous to the plight of the young student in Kiarostami’s 1986 film “Where Is the Friend’s House?”—who seeks to deliver a homework assignment to a schoolmate, fearing they may be expelled—and the manipulation via art theme (represented by Hassan’s pictorial deception) is not only deconstructed in his 1991 masterpiece “Close-Up,” but is also a vital component of Kiarostami’s own filmmaking practices on the whole. Throughout his career, Kiarostami has continually broken down the barriers between narrative and documentary forms, and although he’s nowhere to be found, either physically or symbolically, in the “The Traveler,” Kiarostami nonetheless had tapped into two fertile texts which he set in motion with both this film and his prior short feature, “The Experience,” both soon to be developed into motifs all their own.
That the boy never realizes his goal—no pun intended—is in itself no surprise; that his failure is brought about by his own negligence is something else. When Hassan falls asleep outside the stadium, waiting for the match to start, a silent dream sequence riddled with overtones of guilt concerning his dubious, selfish behavior is enacted by Kiarostami to disquieting effect. Besides still standing as Kiarostami’s only dream sequence, it’s also an uncharacteristically forthright articulation of his character’s inner state. Such displays would later visualize themselves in much more abstract ways, such as the climatic storms in “Where Is the Friend’s House?” and 1998's “Taste of Cherry,” respectively, or through the maze of titular perennials in 1994's “Through the Olive Trees.” Indeed, the suppression of information would soon become one of Kiarostami’s most identifiable techniques, but in “The Traveler,” our hero passionately pursues his mission with an openness both of a piece and exclusive to the director’s later protagonists. This character will, in a spiritual sense, travel so far across his oeuvre that it’s not erroneous to view him as the purest distillation of a Kiarostami hero to date. [InRO]