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Life and Nothing More… (Abbas Kiarostami) 1991   

        Abbas Kiarostami’s 1991 pseudo-documentary masterpiece Life and Nothing More…(also known as And Life Goes On…) is an astonishing film, and probably the finest Iranian movie that I’ve seen to date. The film, which constantly blurs the lines between fact and fiction, follows a film director (Farhad Kheradmand) and, Puya, his young son (Buba Bayour) as they travel through the clogged roads of Iran in an attempt to reach Koker, a town that has been devastated by an earthquake.  

Two children that supposedly starred in one of the director’s films (but actually starred in Kiarostami’s own Where is My Friend’s Home?) reside there, and there’s a sense of urgency because there is little news about the details of the breadth of the town’s perdition. Still, things often play out in a manner that’s closer to comedy than drama. The bulk of the film examines the parallels and differences in behavior between the director (who is not given a name, further suggesting we should just think of him as Kiarostami) and his son, and those observations are often quite comic.

 Kiarostami shows a masterful amount of skill in simply presenting human behavior without artifice. He doesn’t assume that just because a quake has altered these peoples’ lives, leaving them homeless and killing scads of their relatives, that they have lost their own personality. That they still do their laundry and dig out even after losing so much is one of the film’s more moving observations. Their less flattering qualities are shown as well. A woman is shown scolding her kids and comparing their destructive force to that of the quake. Another woman still has so much haughty pride that she resists help from the director, even though her husband has been killed. Many of the people that the film shows are given a chance to tell their perspective on the events of the quake. That the director (and his son) stops to listen to them shows a respect for their unique point of view. Even though the film’s children lack eloquence, and would just as excitedly recap a soccer game as the events of the quake, the film edits nothing they have to say out. What would normally be perceived as their lack of perspective is to Kiarostami as valuable as any other perspective in the film. 

             The film notably takes place entirely outside, among the people and Kiarostami’s regard for the people in his film is much more of an asset than it might appear. He doesn’t present the effects of the quake as a montage of suffering, but instead gives us a sharply observed, humble point of view.  He underlines the inherent lack of perspective that one individual can have on a tragedy as big as this one by keeping the movie’s perspective quite subjective. Through his use of off-screen space and sound effects, he suggests there’s a big world that extends beyond what he shows us. For large portions of the film, our view restricted to what the characters in the car see out their windows. The abstract window on the world that the camera provides in any film is made literal here. An obvious migration of rescue vehicles is passing them by, but the only clue that we get is the sound of their sirens. Kiarostami obviously respects his audience too, because he trusts their imaginations to fill in the details that his film leaves unstated. Only one moment in the middle of the film, where the director decides, somewhat inappropriately, to add a score to the soundtrack, do things feel anything less than filled with a non-manipulative integrity.

             There are wonderful moments in this film in which Kiarostami’s surrogate meets a Mr. Ruhi, one of his acting alumni, who is surreally carrying a urinal. His way of dismissing the question of why he has such a thing in a time of tragedy is disarming in its simplicity. He matter-of-factly states that his most basic human needs haven’t been diminished by the disaster, so rejects any pretension that suggests his attention should be focused elsewhere. When the group travels home, he points out that the home that he lives in isn’t his “real” home, but is actually the one that the filmmakers asked him to live in during the filming of this movie because the plot required his character to have a home that was still standing. He then continues breaking the fourth wall by explaining that he really lives in a tent, and asks the director, “What kind of art is it that makes a man look older and uglier? To make a man younger and more beautiful is better art,” protesting his casting as a hunchback in Kiarostami’s last film. Next, he asks for a prop that isn’t where it’s supposed to be, prompting a production assistant to come from off-screen to provide it. These complaints don’t feel at all pretentious, but instead feel like Kiarostami’s way of apologizing for exploiting this misfortune (even though his few transgressions are hardly something to be ashamed of when compared to something like Dante’s Peak) by admitting his infidelities from reality. 

            The responsibility that Kiarostami feels toward truth combined with the genuine compassion that he displays toward his “characters” makes the film profoundly humanistic.  Life and Nothing More…, as the title suggests, is the farthest thing possible from a narrative imposition of the way that this event was. It takes the good with the bad, the funny with the trenchantly heartbreaking, and the beautiful with the ugly, allowing the role of judge to be filled by the individual viewer. The journey of the film is dotted with so many varying moments of perceptive clarity that the beautiful closing image of a zigzagging run up a hill perfectly illustrates the director’s reflective and encompassing point of view.

 * * * * Masterpiece


 Jeremy Heilman