Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.
No filmmaker did more than Abbas Kiarostami to bring the world’s attention to Iranian cinema in the 1990s. With their spare, humanist, and philosophically rich stories imbued with poetic imagery, films like Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us won awards at major film festivals. They also played to critical raves in North America and Europe, influenced a generation of Iranian filmmakers, and established Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema.
But in the early 2000s, Kiarostami grew restless and—at the height of his worldwide popularity—embarked on a daringly experimental phase. He challenged traditional notions of film narrative and even the role and function of the filmmaker. In his 2002 film Ten, the master auteur, whose directorial achievements had been recognized with awards from Cannes and Venice, attempted to absent himself from the artistic process: he had his actors perform for cameras mounted inside a car as they drove around Tehran.
Five: Dedicated to Ozu, showing this Sunday at 2:45 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, is an even more radical departure. Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia, it is a film constructed of five landscapes, each of which tells its own subtle story. Its stars are dogs, ducks, pieces of driftwood, and the moon. Landscape has always been important to Kiarostami; two of his landscape photographs appear in Sense of Place. It plays a major role even in his narrative films, and in Roads of Kiarostami, which precedes Five at 2 pm, he discusses landscape’s place in his artistic process. But in Five it is the sole subject—which isn’t to say that the film is dry or difficult. Several years ago I heard Kiarostami speak about his work. During his opening remarks he chose to show a humorous clip from Five involving ducks running back and forth on a beach. It was a real crowd-pleaser: comedy constructed purely from movement, timing, and ingenious framing.
If Kiarostami had continued to work in this vein he might have been seen, like Marcel Duchamp or Philip Guston, as an artist who abandoned the gifts that made him famous to deliberately explore more difficult aesthetic terrain. But in recent years he has returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Though they were made in Italy and Japan, respectively, these films are as mysterious and beguiling as his earlier work in Iran. So maybe Kiarostami is more like Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker whose foray into the unfamiliar enriched and refreshed his approach to what we knew and appreciated in the first place.