Writing about Abbas Kiarostami's "Koker Trilogy," film scholar David Oubia described the films as an "extraordinary series of palimpsests, where each film overwrites its predecessor." This is particularly true of the third film in the series, Through the Olive Trees, which is the most overtly self-reflexive. It calls attention to itself as a constructed film by dramatizing the making of the previous film in the series, And Life Goes On (1992), which was itself a fictionalized account of Kiarostami's search for two of the young boys who played roles in his earlier film Where is the Friend's House (1987) and were possibly killed in the 1990 Manjil-Rudbar earthquake in northern Iran. Through the Olive Trees features Mohamad Ali Keshavarz playing a filmmaker (an obvious stand-in for Kiarostami) who is directing a scene with Farhad Kheradmand, who played Kiarostami's fictional stand-in in And Life Goes On. You can see why Oubia described the films as a series of palimpsests.
Yet, of all the films in the trilogy, Through the Olive Trees is the least satisfying and engaging precisely because virtually everything interesting about it is interesting because of its relation to the other films. Where is the Friend's House, which has no meta-qualities whatsoever, is the best film in the series-a small masterpiece of humanist filmmaking in the neorealist mode. And Life Goes On builds intrigue with its fictionalized recounting of Kiarostami's return to the Koker region to discover the fates of the earlier film's young actors, although its real quality is in its depiction of the resilience, sadness, determination, and resignation of those who survived the massive earthquake, but must reassemble their shattered lives in the shadow of so many deaths. The underlying drama of the natural disaster and Kiarostami's delicate means of situating a wide variety of characters within the shattered landscape makes the film compelling in its own right.
Through the Olive Trees, on the other hand, lacks its own dramatic urgency. On a purely intellectual level, it is fascinating film in relation to the others in the trilogy, but viewed on its own, it doesn't have much to offer. A significant chunk of the film's drama revolves around Hossein (Hossein Rezai), a local who Kiarostami hired to play a young man who got married right after the earthquake in And Life Goes On. There is tension in the scene Hossein is playing because he is in love with Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), the actress playing his on-screen wife, who refuses to respond to his many declarations of love and intentions to marry her in reality. Hossein discusses the situation with the film director and pursues Tahereh every chance he gets, all of which seems to be an exercise in futility. Like And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees ends on an extreme long shot that leaves us in a state of ambiguity; it might signal a breakthrough for Hossein or simply confirm the futility of his gestures.
There are moments in Through the Olive Trees that strike with dramatic resonance, particularly some of the conversations between Hossein and the film director. Kiarostami is also clearly interested in reflecting on the nature of filmmaking, a preoccupation that is of some interest, but not enough to carry the film on its own (it also results in a certain amount of tedium, as we watch the director directing the same scene over and over and over again, an accurate depiction of the nature of filmmaking that in and of itself does not make for compelling cinema). Hossein's romantic travails are of even less interest, which strands the film and leaves it with little outside its meta-reflective nature on Kiarostami's previous works. Approaching it as a part of a larger whole is not without its pleasures, but on its own it has not much to stand on.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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