Contortions of Reality in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees”

by Hannah Khosravi

From the inception of renowned Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees, ”the tale is championed by its own sense of elusiveness. Kiarostami, engaging in his expertise of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, portrays the subtle nuances of the Iranian cultural character and contrasts his use of precisely reflexive filmmaking with a fairly naturalistic, hometown story of boy and girl. 

The film establishes itself as an alternative experience right from the first frame. Actor Mohammad Ali Keshavarz possesses the film’s opening scene: he introduces himself (as himself, not as any character), and explains that in this film, he will be playing the role of a director who arrives in the northern-Iranian town of Koker in order to hire non-professional actors and create a film that tells the story of how the aforementioned town has coped with the after-effects of a calamitous earthquake. Kiarostami, within seconds, has already distorted the perceptions of his audience. Is this a documentary? Is it a fictional retelling? Is it a fabrication? The audience gets the sense that the character Keshavarz will resume throughout the rest of the movie is the character of Kiarostami as a director – in essence, Kiarostami has hired someone to play himself. Whether or not Kiarostami himself conducted the direction of the film in the same way as Keshavarz describes his character will do – by simply travelling to the ravaged community and hoping the townspeople would agree to play the roles – is left up ambiguous. Perhaps the making of “Through the Olive Trees” was more planned than Kiarostami would like us to believe – but perhaps it was not. From the start, we are engaged in his elaborate, beautiful ruse, intentioned to mystify us in regard to whether we are watching a retelling, or rather a reflection. 

The audience is prodded to believe that this is, in fact, a sort of portrayal of Kiarostami’s reality when a few of the crew members reference his film “Where is the Friend’s Home?” – one of the previous films in the Koker trilogy. The conversation occurs during a drive through the town – conversations in cars being one of Kiarostami’s go-to symbols, most aptly embraced in his Palme d’Or winning road movie “Taste of Cherry – in which Kiarostami employs one of the film’s most notable camerawork techniques for the first time. While the crew-members discuss the film and their work on the drive, the camera looks outward on their journey, taping the meandering road and the land’s rocky, rubble-ridden landscape rather than those driving the car, only actually turning to the actors when the conversation has concluded. 

The film works with this methodology time and time again – often times, the camera doesn’t move, even when the life it is trying to capture continues to move around it. Why does the shot focus in on Hossein, an illiterate bricklayer in town hired to play a role in the film, as he slowly tying his shoes, when the main dialogue of the scene between two of the set-workers occurs completely out of the frame? Sometimes the camera moves back and forth between two peoples’ faces as they converse, and sometimes it does not, choosing to instead focus on a single character while the conversation ensues. It seems to be Kiarostami’s way of telling us where he wants us to direct our attention – he is indicating to us that this man in the background, tying his shoes, is more integral to the plot Kiarostami is crafting than the often tedious conversation going on around him. 

Gradually, the character of the bricklayer-turned-actor Hossein proves to constitute much of the tale’s emotional core, and while Kiarostami’s film might be psychologically complex in its contortions of reality, the story itself is a rather wholesome, simple tale of unrequited love.  And despite his pioneering reputation as a paramount auteur of the neorealist genre, Kiarostami does not do much to dress it up to be otherwise. In the film, Hossein has long been in love with Taraneh, a beautiful young woman whose parents were both killed in the earthquake. Despite his determination in asking for her hand in marriage, he has been faced with refusal both by her parents, and later by her grandmother, because he is illiterate and owns no land. Hossein, on the other hand, finds it of the utmost importance that his wife be literate even if he is not – “Who will help our children with their homework if we are both illiterate?” he asks at one point, with the forlorn longing of a child in his eyes.

In terms of the romantic plotline, the film is not immune to the welcoming of comedic elements and the often theatrical idiosyncrasies of small town life. One could call it a trope – the morbidly insecure, slightly awkward young underdog who falls in love with a beautiful girl a bit who somewhat exceeds him in both intellectual and economic in stature. Taraneh rejects him time and time again, rolls her eyes at his presence, and refuses to perform her role in the film when she finds out what it will consist of – playing Hossein’s character’s new bride. It is hard to blame her for her annoyance – Hossein chases after her, both literally and figuratively, nearly every time they interact. But Kiarostami’s filmmaking procedure ensures that the story continues to feel startlingly real. The dialogue is never overzealous, but rather thoughtfully placed, and almost perturbingly intentional.

Kiarostami achieves this, in so small part, due to the fact that throughout the film, certain moments are keyed in and shot close up – certain moments that, in other films, might be relegated to background noise or B-roll. There is, for example, an exceedingly long conversation  between the director and an ailing, elderly man who is noted for making great Persian stew and cooks for the visiting crew members each night, which might seem somewhat irrelevant to the plot.  But any viewer of “Through the Olive Trees” must ask themselves whether there really even is a plot to the film other than to capture the lives of the townspeople as they are. As the conversation drawls on, we learn that the man’s wife has died in the earthquake, he explains why he cannot ethically justify remarrying after the death of his beloved wife, and he tells his new friend that all his children are in Tehran – no one lasts long in this town unless they have to. 

There is a scene later on, similarly extensive in length for its lack of palpable content, in which the director quizzes a small group of rambunctious schoolboys gathered around the set on their homework. The moment lingers and drags, as the director keeps asking questions and playfully receives their enthusiastic responses. In these conversations and reflections, which initially do not seem particularly pertinent, Kiarostami captures the intimate humanity of the people who build the story he is trying to relay. 

Kiarostami’s scenes can sometimes feel as if they are being filtered through thick molasses – melodious, slow, soft, and seemingly inconclusive. He gives time its proper due rather than rushing life for the sake of cinema. It is in this that he achieves his most potent influence as a neorealist director intending to expose the frailties and simultaneous warmth of Iranian societal relations. 

In Kiarostami’s eyes, cinema need not embellish human life with excessive devices of traditional narrative storytelling. To reveal the true, vulnerable human spirit, Kiarostami’s efficacy is drawing the line between fiction and reality – portraying human life, even if it is his fictionalized version, as an accurate meditation of reality. Real life does not cut rapidly between scenes, or hop back and forth in the forceful movement of a plot. Real life moves with the monotony of the everyday, and Kiarostami treats this reality with the painstaking exactitude and tangible compassion of a careful curator completely dedicated to the mastery of their art.

“Through the Olive Trees,” in its deftness of detail, exposes the poetry of the everyday, showing that the movement of life is sometimes more poetic than prosaic – more inconclusive and less dependent upon a beginning, middle, and end. Even at the conclusion of the story, we are not quite sure what to make of Taraneh’s standing with Hossein. But it does not seem to matter – Kiarostami orchestrates, at the end of the film, a breathtaking six-minute sequence in which Hossein follows Taraneh through the olive trees outside of the town’s center (from where the film has gleaned its title), all the way up and down a picturesque green hill. He follows her until we see nothing but two dots dancing in the distance, gradually growing closer and closer to one another, making for a visually stunning exposé of the land that has given a home to this tale.

In the final moments, it is almost difficult to spot Hossein and Taraneh as they twist and curve through the meandering wood. The music ebbs and flows, its melancholic, woeful tune hinting at the inconclusive ending one might expect from a neorealist Iranian film. The music is hardly noticeable – that is, until it swells with the vigor and intensity of a crescendo, as Taraneh and Hossein, the two hardly discernible dots in our view of the panning mountain range, finally stop their chase and draw close to one another. And just as the viewer might think the film is over, the music alters, transformed into a completely alternative, chipper melody. With the shift of tune, Hossein’s figure scampers back down the mountain as Taraneh continues forward. 

This is by no means a definite answer to our question of “what happens at the end?”, but it does allude to the fact that Hossein may have finally received the response he had so long desired from his dearest Taraneh – and only then did he feel that he could stop chasing her through the olive trees. The resolution, indistinct as it may be, draws the film to a close, with the small white dot we know to be Hossein skipping back down the mountain and the jovial music encapsulating his success. Only then does the viewer realize how the film’s score has held such a forceful dominion over their thoughts and opinions. The music allows Kiarostami to create a visual scene poem of sorts – an aesthetic combination of music and photographic imagination to tell his story in a technique that defies the use of dialogue. 

“Through the Olive Trees” is, in itself, a contradiction. It is a investigation of the meaning of reality whilst simultaneously paying homage to the culture of a broken Iranian town, and somehow, in the end, proving to be a pure and simplistic love story. With the utilization of careful contradiction, Kiarostami transcends the title of “filmmaker” and becomes something more akin to a visual poet. And “Through the Olive Trees” shows the master at his finest – capturing a small spot of time in a seemingly unknown, destitute setting and allowing the time and life he captures with his camera lens to transpire naturally, as if to give this place and these people the cherished attention they deserve.  

Works Cited –

Abbas Kiarostami. Through The Olive Trees. Miramax Films, 1994.