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Abbas Kiarostami Koker Trilogy

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: The Koker Trilogy | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: The Koker Trilogy | Blu-ray Review

There isn’t a cinematic figure like any other, at least who straddled such a drastic historical divide of censorship, like Abbas Kiarostami, a pioneer of the New Iranian Cinema in the 1980s who became his country’s most internationally recognized auteur before sadly passing away in 2016 in the midst of preparing a new project supposedly to have been set in China. While his last two narrative features found him leaving behind Iran in the pursuit of greater creative expression, leading him to Italy/France with the beloved Certified Copy (2010) and then Japan in 2012’s Like Someone in Love (review), his cinematic contributions to post-revolution Iran helped shaped their visual expressions, using poetic symbolism as a language with which to avoid censorship. One can see his influence quite clearly in the works of Jafar Panahi (featured in Through the Olive Trees and infamously arrested and forced into house arrest in 2009, leading to varied inventive modes in order to continue his cinematic expression) or Asghar Farhadi, who has also found success pursuing projects outside of Iran.

It’s curious to note how the New Iranian Cinema of the 1980s grew out of what Godfrey Cheshire terms “child-centered” art films, a specialty of this period’s successful outputs (directors like Amir Naderi and Bahram Beyzai were prominent names prior to Kiarostami’s rebirth), a cultural legacy forced to reinvent itself like a bildungsroman, through the eyes of a child. This began with Kiarostami’s first feature post revolution, 1987’s Where is the Friend’s House?, a scripted treatment Kiarostami meant for someone else to direct but would become the cornerstone of his eventual thematic opus The Koker Trilogy. In comparison to his other films, House does indeed convey a much tighter focus, a surprisingly tense, anguished tale of two school boy friends. Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour) discovers he has mistakenly taken his schoolmate Mohamed Reza’s (his real-life brother Ahmed Ahmedpour) notebook home with him, which likely means Mohamed will be expelled the next day, as it opens with the young boy already being chastised for not using his notebook as instructed. And thus begins a harrowing attempt for Ahmed to convince his mother of the journey he must take from Koker to Poshteh, where his friend lives. Along the way, Kiarostami showcases the way of life of these villagers, including intense generational rifts, where the various adults Ahmed comes across are often less then helpful and completely ambivalent about the child’s distress, save one kind older man who unwittingly ends up leading Ahmed to a house he’d already come across.

Named after a poem by Sohrab Sepehri, Kiarostami concocts a touching portrait of quietly powerful humanism, and the film took home the Bronze Leopard at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival. Before returning to Koker, and thus beginning a self-reflexive template in which Iranian cinema would constantly converse with itself, Kiarostami first delivered his 1990 masterpiece Close-Up, the engrossing presentation blurring the lines between documentary and drama as it portrayed the real-life situation of Hossain Sabzian, who was caught impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Following the devastating 1990 Guilan earthquake, which claimed the lives of over 30,000 people, Kiarostami fashioned his return to Koker with the drama And Life Goes On, which premiered out of Un Certain Regard at Cannes, a road trip film framed by conversations the filmmaker had with his own son upon returning to the region. A director (Farhad Kheradmand) journeys through the countryside in the aftermath of the earthquake with his child. The documentary-like journey finds the director locating several of the boys who had starred in Where is the Friend’s House? and who had survived the disaster. As the director listens to stories from various villagers, one couple in particular stands out as it provides the self-reflexive kernel for the last chapter in the trilogy, Through the Olive Trees as another director attempts to make a film concerning this couple, who married immediately after the earthquake. Meanwhile, the impending Football World Cup holds the populace in thrall as they slowly rebuild their lives.

Kiarostami gets metatextual with the final chapter in the Koker Trilogy, which revisits the production of And Life Goes On, which was itself a film preoccupied with Where is the Friend’s House? Through the Olive Trees would be Kiarostami’s first film to compete for the Palme d’Or, an award he would win with his next narrative feature, 1997’s Taste of Cherry. Suffice it to say, Olive Trees is the most complex interaction with Koker, even as its narrative is simply a film about the making of a film. Mohammad Ali Keshavarz opens the narrative by breaking the fourth wall, announcing he is playing the film’s director, currently casting a young woman to star as part of the couple married a day after the earthquake touched upon in the previous film.

Complication ensues when he casts Hossein Rezai, a local stonemason who replaces the original lead, a man who Keshavarz discovers has a speech impediment. However, Rezai has a complicated history with the female lead, Tahereh, who was orphaned in the earthquake and to whom he proposed to. However, since he has no home and is illiterate, her remaining family finds the proposal to be insulting. The ensuing situation involves Keshavarz’s attempts to complete their shared sequences despite this conflict while he simultaneously attempts to advise Hossein. Kiarostami manages to insert some compelling subtexts in Through the Olive Trees, which has more of a driving force then And Life Goes On (Jafar Panahi, who is on hand as an AD here, would utilize many of Kiarostami’s tactics in his own later works, such as Taxi and 3 Faces, where director and actor become collapsed with an alternate persona of character), particularly in Hossein’s monologue about how social conventions should operate instead of the reality of how they really do, which is designed to favor those at the top of the social hierarchy.

Disc Review:

Criterion presents all three films as new 2K digital restorations in 1.66:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. Picture and sound quality are superb in this collection, available for the first time in one set. One of the finest Blu-ray releases of the year, Criterion includes a bevy of extra features, including Kiarostami’s 1989 documentary Homework.

Kiarostami interviews parents and children at the Martyr Masumi Grade School in Tehran, Iran for this seventy-seven minute documentary made in 1989, directly after Where is the Friend’s House?

Abbas Kiarostami:
Programmer Peter Scarlet interviewed Kiarostami about his life and career in this sixty-seven-minute segment filmed in Toronto, 2015.

Abbas Kiarostami – Truths and Dreams:
Jean-Pierre Limosin directed this fifty-two-minute documentary which was broadcast as the November 28, 1994 episode of the French television show “Cinema, de notre temps.” Kiarostami is featured returning to the Koker region as the doc chronicles his career up until that point.

Hamid Naficy:
Scholar Hamid Naficy, author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema, discusses Kiarostami’s influences and his importance to the period now known as the New Iranian Cinema in this new fifteen-minute interview for Criterion.

Ahmad Kiarostami:
Abbas Kiarostami’s son Ahmad speaks with Criterion in this fourteen-minute 2018 interview about the personal stories which influenced the Koker Trilogy.

Jamsheed Akrami & Godfrey Cheshire:
Scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire converse in this nineteen-minute 2018 segment about the importance of the Koker Trilogy and whether or not it can properly be classified as such,

Final Thoughts:

A significant presentation of Kiarostami’s seminal rebirth and ascent to one of international cinema’s most renowned figures, The Koker Trilogy is effortlessly compelling and captivating through a series of films which lays the groundwork for the director’s own filmography as well as the cinematic language later employed by a future generation of Iranian filmmakers.

Where is the Friend’s House? (1987)

And Life Goes On (1992)

Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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