Friday, July 25, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)


Abbas Kiarostami's 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us takes its title from a poem by the Iranian artist Forugh Farrokhzad, a controversial figure who preached progressive political and feminist doctrine through a variety of written, verbal, and visual mediums before dying in a car accident in 1967 at age 32. In Kiarostami's film, the poem is recited in what could be called its centerpiece scene—it's the only one set indoors—by our unnamed male protagonist as he attempts to seduce a young girl in a dimly lit grotto while she collects milk from the family cow. The encounter isn't quite as provocative as it might read, and indeed Farrokzhad's words convey much of the sequence's visceral and thematic weight. Preoccupied with notions of transience and temporality ("The moon is red and anxious...The clouds await the birth of rain...One second, and then nothing"), the passage is indicative of the film's larger considerations of death and the incremental accumulation of time, as well the formal and nominal characteristics marking it as a cumulative work for its creator, if not cinema itself at the turn of the millennium.

Advancing along the horizon toward Siah Dareh, a remote Kurdish village some 400 miles outside of Tehran, a three-man film crew arrives in anticipation of the death of an elderly woman whose ceremonial burial and attendant mourning rituals they hope to turn into a television documentary. When she fails to pass away within the first few days, instead showing signs of recovery, the men are forced to wait out the inevitable, to the frustration of not only themselves, but also their bosses back home and the local townsfolk, who view these outsiders (who identify themselves as "engineers") as nothing more than opportunists. The majority of the film focuses on the anonymous producer (Behzad Dourani) in charge of the impending shoot and his day-to-day explorations of the village. He's led on most of these tours by a young boy named Farzhad (Farzhad Sohrabi), who seems more than happy to accompany the stranger as long as it doesn't interfere with his studies. There's little traditional drama in The Wind Will Carry Us; instead unassuming moments are allowed to play out without much fanfare, humor, and ironies emerging from the routine activities of visitor and villagers alike. Thus the slightest hint of tension, such as the aforementioned scene set in a ghostly enclave or a late moment in which a laborer falls into a pit, carry an immense sense of gravity.

Kiarostami chooses to focus on only a handful of individuals, relegating a majority of his sometimes vital characters to off-screen voices. In fact, the most important information in the film is almost always approached from discrete angles, if not simply elided entirely. We never see, for instance, the other two members of the production crew, though we hear them in conversation throughout. Not even the ailing old woman is seen or heard, taking on instead a kind of spectral role, simultaneously advancing and prolonging the narrative. Kiarostami, in turn, positions his camera in ever-expansive yet highly constricted formulations, moving from extreme long shots of the surrounding landscape to a static, almost structuralist tableau of the village architecture, to slyly intricate shot-reverse-shot encounters, most of which isolate the performer in conversation with an unseen partner, themselves often filmed on an entirely different occasion—and usually opposite Kiarostami himself. These repetitive setups—and the repeated activities depicted within them (a running joke about the lack of cellphone reception is almost frustrating in its familiarity)—enhance the film's parallel function as a bleak comedy, while reinforcing the mundane anticipation that fuels such situational irony.

After premiering at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 1999, The Wind Will Carry Us would be released Stateside the following year and, appropriately for a film of such comprehensive thematic and aesthetic value, has retroactively come to represent a key moment in the evolution of contemporary art-house cinema. Not only was this was the last film Kiarostami would shoot on 35mm (all his subsequent features and shorts have been shot digitally), but it also brought to a close a decade of stylistic innovation and refinement. Traces of all his films from Where Is the Friend's Home? to Life, and Nothing More... to Taste of Cherry are present in The Wind Will Carry Us, and likewise in many ways, from formal reconciliation to narrative consolidation, it remains his defining work. As the film comes to a close, and the producer finally packs up to leave the village, professionally unfulfilled but spiritually stirred, we watch as he tosses into a stream a single human bone, a remnant of the past whose future is unwritten. There may be no better metaphor for our post-millennial cinematic landscape.

Image/Sound:
The color scheme on Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray of The Wind Will Carry Us is the most noticeable difference between the new 1080p transfer and prior standard-definition DVDs. The overall look is darker, but colors look significantly more authentic, with the heightened blues, greens, and yellows of past transfers looking over-sharpened by comparison. The compositions are now softer, but with visible texture and more balanced contrast, significantly bringing detail to the fore. There are very few artifacts, but enough grain is in evidence to reinforce the picture's filmic properties. Sound, meanwhile, is a subtle but crucial element of this film, and the LPCM track does a wonderful job handling all the incremental and ambient sounds which pepper the mix. Dialogue is likewise clear and upfront, with no undue noise to note. There's audible depth to the track and enough separation between the elements to keep things from becoming too cluttered.

Extras:
Following great audio commentaries for their recent releases of Tristana and For Ever Mozart, Cohen Media add another essential track to their catalogue with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mahranz Saeed-Vafa's feature-length discussion of The Wind Will Carry Us. Rosenbaum mostly talks of the film's formal and contextual elements, while Saeed-Vafa imparts important details regarding cultural, thematic, and linguistic nuance. Together they're two of the foremost critical authorities on Kiarostami, and there's much to glean here for novice and expert alike. Elsewhere there's a 90-minute video Q&A with Kiarostami conducted by Richard Peña at the University of Indiana covering the director's entire career, as well as a 2014 re-release trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Tonguette.

Overall:
Abbas Kiarostami's turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece, a cumulative work for both its creator and the cinema itself to that point, arrives on a pristine-looking Blu-ray with an essential commentary track. [Slant]

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