KARACHI: Meursault is numb to the news of his mother’s death. It arrives to the central character of Albert Camus’ The Stranger via telegram and the information written on the piece of paper doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers us as readers.
The absurdity of the situation pinches you, makes you look for some sort of resolution to this wildly unreasonable situation, until you realise that there isn’t one. What Meursault is looking for is not the absurd, he himself is the absurd.
Similarly, in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, the elegant Iranian man Mr Badii drives around the outskirts of Tehran, looking for someone who can help him take his own life.
The insensitivity and randomness of his actions make you wonder that maybe it’s a joke. Why would anyone want to happily take their life and express the desire with a straight face? This not only makes us speculate about the intentions behind his words, but also those of his potential undertakers, all of whom try to convince him against the idea.
As he lies in his grave, waiting to be buried
Mr Badii, who is an ex-army officer in his 50s, seems like he has introspected enough before making the decision. He has come to the point from which Camus launches his other book, A Myth of Sysiphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”
Both Camus and Kiarostami reflect upon a deeper, more basic, existential crisis and both use it to make some sort of comment on the larger socio-political landscape, be it the French occupation of Algeria or the wars the Kurds and Afghans have fought. The commentary, however, remains secondary to both.
Having said that, Kiarostami by no means mimicked the ideas talked about in the book; in fact, the ending of his film is where he leaves Camus alone, like a stranger. Whether it is because of his upbringing in a culturally well-knit society or something else, but unlike The Stranger, A Taste of Cherry has a strong sense of moral obligation. That is where Kiarostami and Camus change paths.
It’s clear that Mr Badii wants to end his life. But he wants that to happen through the hands of someone who is worthy of all the money he is paying in return. We see that there are so many labourers willing to do anything for free, but Mr Badii is very choosy; even in his death, he wants a sense of innocence and need in the person who is going to take his life.
Morality, on the other hand, does not exist in Meursault’s world. He knows he is a product of circumstances and that nothing is going to change him or the consequences of his circumstances, so why bother. Camus equates man’s central existential problems to his futile sense of having to be somewhere.
Iranian director Kiarostami dies in France at 76
Meanwhile, Mr Badii doesn’t just disappear in the grave. He emerges in a greener setting, where the camera crew is busy shooting the film and actors are happily plucking flowers. Whether it was all just an act or an actual reincarnation, one can only wonder. However, one thing for sure is that the visible serenity and happiness of the frame, as compared to the previous tension and heat, clearly hint towards a new day, a Nauroze.
To be able to resurrect something as relevant to modern day discourse as The Stranger on the big screen is perhaps Kiarostami’s biggest achievement. He relies on natural lighting, on-location sound and a very minimalistic score to communicate an arresting narrative; one that raises the most brutal of all questions without actually talking a lot. His amalgamation of visual storytelling and existentialist overtones makes the film a poignant addition to the history of cinema as well as the history of ideas. Although Taste of Cherry was more of a festival film than a mainstream release, yet it has ended up being to the post-ISIS generation what The Stranger was to the post-World War generation.
Let’s hope awareness about Kiarostami’s genius and Taste of Cherry slowly seeps into popular thought. For sometimes, your death is necessary for your idea to live.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2016.
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