Released from an Iranian government ban just days before the 1997 Cannes festival, Kiarostami's sombre drama went on to share the Palme D'Or with Shohei Imamura's The Eel. With films of the calibre of The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm and LA Confidential up against them, you have to wonder what the jurors were playing at.
This is a far cry from The White Balloon, the enchanting film Kiarostami scripted for one-time assistant Jafar Panahi. Instead of focusing on a young girl for whom every sight and sound is new and exciting, the action here centres on the world-weary, middle-aged Mr. Badii (Ershadi) on the verge of suicide. As Islamic law takes a dim view of self-slaughter, Badii cruises the hills above Tehran looking for someone who might be willing to wield a spade and hide his deed in return for a handsome reward.
In properly symbolic fashion, he propositions a Kurdistani army recruit (Moradi) and an Afghan seminary student (Mir Hossein Noori) before meeting Turkish taxidermist (Bagheri), himself a failed suicide, who needs the cash to nurse his sick son.
Does he do the deed? We'll never know because, rather than reveal the result of Badii's midnight mullings as he lies in his grave, Kiarostami cuts to video footage of himself and his crew wrapping the final shot. Anyone who saw Through The Olive Trees will recognise the director's fondness for highlighting the filmic process, but any dislocating impact this has is vastly outweighed by feelings of deprivation.
Although talkbound and almost exclusively shot inside Badii's car, this is a fascinating film, with the subtle shifts of scenery and colour quite masterly. But it should never have won at Cannes.