23rd Sep2019

‘The Koker Trilogy’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Babek Ahmed Poor, Farhad Kheradmand, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Zarifeh Shiva, Buba Bayour, Khodabakhsh Defaei | Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

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They may not have a breakneck pace, and they may seem unbearably light on explicit incident, but Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy did the shared universe thing two decades before Marvel perfected the formula. Each film is a deeply humanistic fable in its own right and each is woven into the fabric of the others. Together they show just how powerfully mind-bending the use of sequels can be.

The first part, Where Is The Friend’s House?, starts simply. One day at school, Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) witnesses his friend Mohammad Reda (Ahmed Ahmed Poor) being told off by their teacher for forgetting his notebook. Reda is on his last warning – one more strike and he’s expelled. When Ahmed gets home, he realises he’s accidentally picked up Reda’s notebook. He tells his mother that he must travel to the neighbouring village, Poshteh, to return it. When she says no, a defiant Ahmed sneaks away to complete his quest.

What ensues is a gorgeous, gentle tour of Iranian rural life: the rough land and the tumbledown architecture, with nary a straight line in sight, and only the sounds of animals and the wind for company. Everything is filmed on location, and the palette is fantastically muted. As with all the films, everything is shot on location with natural lighting.

The child’s perspective is exquisitely captured. Even though Ahmed explores a small area, there’s a sense of a vast, labyrinthine, uncooperative world. Adults are presented as brutal, uncaring disciplinarians – for example, his grandfather, proudly espousing the value of regular beatings. To Ahmed, Adults don’t take children seriously, and they cannot grasp the gravity of his mission.

And Life Goes On, the second film, functions as something of a corrective, as it follows an adult almost exclusively. Farhad Kheradmand plays a middle-aged father on a journey with his son to a devastated Poshteh to find out what became of Babek Ahmed Poor, the child actor from Where Is The Friend’s House?. And Life Goes On is a work of fiction, but it is blended with reality – not just the direct references to the artifice of its predecessor, but also in its use of real footage from the aftermath of the 1990 Manjil–Rudbar earthquake.

It is another story about loss and being lost; direction and misdirection. It’s unsentimental – it is not a film about a father preaching endless life lessons to his son. The father is a passive, objective presence, never really intervening (and, it must be said, never really helping with the clean-up). The biggest on-screen conflict is when he accidentally blocks the road with his car.

The people he encounters are piecing their lives back together. Some have but a token of their former life: a lamp, an ornament, a sink, or a toilet. We see snapshots of lives restarting in the rubble. And there are scenes of everyday chores here which rhyme with the first film, informing us that life is already turning back to normal. World Cup Italia ’90 is bringing back a sense of community, even in the tarpaulin refugee camps. Perhaps especially there.

And Life Goes On is often filmed from inside the father’s (remarkably robust) car, bringing an intimacy to the family relationship, while also providing some stunning tracking shots of the fractured Iranian landscape. It’s a more expansive film than the first, though less focused. It ends with a long, beautiful, meaningful final shot.

In the third and best part, Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami himself kind of appears – albeit in fictional form, played by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, who takes the role of the director as he struggles to make his previous film, And Life Goes On. We are now at the third – or possibly fourth? – level of Inception-like meta. The director is aided by Mrs Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), who is ably herding the amateur cast of locals amidst the ruins of their homes. We watch the small fictional stories behind the filming of a fictional story, which was itself about chasing a fiction.

Through the Olive Trees mostly focuses on Hossein (Hossein Redai), the newly-wed from And Life Goes On, and his courting of Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), despite her grandmother’s refusal to give her away. Equal parts sweet, persistent and entitled, Hossein is a lovesick soul, and Redai delivers a performance of depth and detail.

The closing act of Kiarostami’s trilogy is the most playful and moving of the series, deepening the relationships between characters as we watch them struggle to find the “critical rehearse moment” of key scenes. It’s also the most talky and the most narratively disciplined of the three.

What’s lovely about Kiarostami’s style across all the films is his ability to create scenes of sumptuous cinematic quality with a quiet and grounded sensibility. He frames the world with style and scope, but always from a human’s eye-view. He’ll shoot a scene of people approaching through a rear-view mirror; a tracking shot will be delivered from a car window; a landscape might be admired from atop a hill, but never from a crane or helicopter. It’s true cinema of the real world.

The Koker Trilogy is a key set of works from a crucial film artist, and it’s a reminder of his quality after the disappointing swansong that was 2017’s tiresome 24 Frames. With this trilogy, we are watching an auteur at the top of his game, blending reality and artifice in such a way that it forces us to question the very constitution of life outside the frame. Few have had such control over life within it.

The Koker Trilogy is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 23 September 2019.

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