‘Olive Trees’: Bears Message
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 19, 1996
“Through the Olive Trees,” Abbas Kiarostami’s subtly involving faux-documentary, acquaints you directly with the time-consuming, spiritually enervating process of filmmaking. But there’s more to it than that. A film-within-a-film drama, it’s about a movie crew that is recruiting amateur actors in a mountainous region of Iran for a romance called “And Life Goes On‚. . .‚.” The area has just been devastated by an earthquake. Homes are crumbled and deserted. Many people are now living by the side of the highway. But the upheaval doesn’t preclude local excitement. Kids skip school and hike five miles to watch the filming. Girls, their heads draped in chadors, vie shyly to be chosen for a part. After casting his actors, the director (famous Iranian actor Mohamad Ali Keshavarz—who introduces himself to the camera as a real actor playing the director) commences the production. But Keshavarz’s male lead has to bow out because he stutters in the presence of women. In a newlywed romance, that’s a major problem.
The actor is replaced immediately by a young bricklayer (Hossein Rezai), but the problems do not disappear. There’s friction between Rezai and the lead actress (Tahereh Ladania). Apparently, Rezai—who first saw Ladania when he was working on her parents’ home—recently proposed to her. But his offer was refused, and Hossein was fired from his job. After that, the earthquake claimed the lives of Tahereh’s parents. The tragedy notwithstanding, Ladania remains under the protection of her grandmother, who thinks little of the illiterate, homeless, now-unemployed Rezai. Ladania, whose true desires remain a mystery, speaks to Rezai only as a performer. The film crew has to repeat take after take, as these two distracted actors botch their lines. And now, the real story emerges.
“Through the Olive Trees,” which Kiarostami wrote, directed and edited, tells its tale with a quasi-documentary accumulation. Real time seems to idle, as director Keshavarz patiently rolls his eyes and instructs his cameraman to shoot the same scene again—and Hossein stubbornly importunes Tahereh to reconsider him as a husband. The characters (and Keshavarz is the only professional among these performers) seem to be living their lives with realistic, deadpan intensity—with Kiarostami’s camera merely recording the experience. And in the final scene, a wonderful extended shot that brings the title vividly to the fore, “Olive” shows, in a way few conventional movies can, that life goes on forever.
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