"Even at sea there's no water for me."
Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami has been one of the more unique and consistent voices in world cinema since the 1970s, but some could argue his golden period really began in the 1990s, heralded by 1990's Close-Up and brought to full bloom by 1997's Taste of Cherry. Yet, it's his 1999 movie The Wind Will Carry Us that might be the best of the lot. As with most of his signature work, it's as inscrutable as it is involving, relying on the audience's powers of observation as much as that of the auteur.
The Wind Will Carry Us is, by most standards, plotless. Its main character is almost always referred to as "the engineer," though there are a couple of instances when we also hear that he is called Behzad, a first name he shares with the actor who portrays him, Behzad Dorani. Traveling with a small crew, the engineer has come from Tehran to a remote village in the mountains, under hire from an unseen power, someone we never even hear as the engineer carries on one-sided cell phone conversations. These phone calls are an act of futility. Every time the phone rings, the engineer must haul ass up the mountain to the cemetery to get reception. It's no wonder that near the end of the film he smiles at a dung beetle pushing its ball of waste uphill. Sisyphus must have occasionally noticed a bug on his path, as well.
What the engineer is seeking in the village is amorphous. He first claims he is looking to get some kind of treasure from an invalid woman who lives there. He tells this to her young grandson, Farzad, in order to befriend him and get daily updates as to her health. This may have just been a ruse, however; in a moment of confidence with one of Farzad's teachers, the engineer suggests he is there to film the village's funeral practices. This itself would be a kind of treasure. The mourning is apparently dramatic to the point of violence. Regardless, this makes the engineer a sort of vulture lurking about waiting for the carrion to fall, ironically missing a funeral for one of his own relatives while he is away. This man from the city is a walking bad omen. While he hangs around on the hill, a ditch digger toils away digging a tunnel under the cemetery. The engineer is like a chatty grim reaper hanging over the man's tomb.
We never see the digger's face, nor do we see many of the people the engineer talks to, including his crew. Only a couple of times does Kiarostami cut away from his lead to show what he is watching or who he is talking to. The most significant moment is when the engineer must go into an underground barn to fetch milk from a girl whom the ditch digger is sweet on. Kiarostami places the man behind the camera, instead focusing on the girl drawing life from her beast. We never see her face all that clearly, though, because she refuses to trust the engineer to see it. Nor will she tell him her name. She fears him, and these things have power. As she milks, he recites the poem that gives the film its title, and when he is through and she has handed him the milk, he asks her to use her lantern to show him the way out. Symbolic much?
Sure, but Kiarostami never puts too fine a point on it. The Wind Will Carry Us is a film where the sum is greater than the parts. No one moment speaks to the film's intent; rather, it's the various pieces strung together that lead the way, points on a narrative map that the engineer can never see for what they are. He is perpetually lost, stuck on a road to nowhere, unsure if there's anything at the other end besides...well, death. There are many small odes to the futility of man, many reminders that we are fallible and fragile. Life is full of questions that we must answer before moving on, like the test questions that Farzad keeps getting stuck on. The afterlife figures in each. Could this town merely be Purgatory?
Kiarostami crafts the film from his usual voyeuristic vantage. The director prefers to hang back from the scenes, to watch as they unfold, and to place his characters within their larger surroundings. This is evident in the sound as much as the visuals. The figures in the image may be standing still, but life does not go quiet around them. We hear the sounds of nature, or of other humans going about their day. The engineer often seems small in the labyrinthine streets of the village. He is also alone. He spends his days waiting for an old woman to die, wasting his time repeating the same pointless tasks.
Yet, these tasks, Kiarostami seems to say, are really the stuff of life. By the time that which the engineer seeks arrives, he has found other things to occupy him, has gleaned another purpose from life, and through his chats with a practical country doctor, reconciled himself with what lies beyond the immediate enough to leave.
It's really quite fine, I don't want to oversell the flaws, but don't expect absolute perfection either.
The English subtitles are well written and easy to read.
A full-length audio commentary with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and film expert Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who trade off to dig deeper into the meaning and the history behind The Wind Will Carry Us. There is also a new conversation with Abbas Kiarostami, "The Poetry of Cinema," recorded at a career retrospective focused on the filmmaker. It runs an hour and a half.
There is also a trailer for the recent re-release.