The Wind Will Carry Us (2000): “Themes of Immortality”

Directed: Abbas Kiarostami

With:       Behzad Dourani

Coming at the heels of A Taste of Cherry (1997), Kiarostami’s masterpiece of the ‘90s, The Wind Will Carry Us has some of the latter’s characteristics, but it differs significantly in action and theme development: Cherry was undeniably and undeviatingly tragic, its mood dark and pessimistic, although its last scene contains a ray of hope. The Wind Will Carry Us is basically a comedy, with social overtones, and possibly hidden messages cagily inserted in action and imagery to avoid the perils of censorship, of which Kiarostami is aware,[1] carefully avoiding any reference to a government or authority. Both films, however, despite their overt messages, are celebrations of life; both imply a defeat of death, not through resurrection but through affirmation. Both these films can be characterized as odysseys of sorts, where essentially one man is seeking-consciously or subconsciously, clues to the meaning of existence.

Like Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us features a man (Dourani), driving a car through the meandering roads of an arid countryside. In the opening long shots, we overhear a dialogue between him and his two companions—all remain invisible for a while—exchanging views about the directions to a place they are visiting, fearing they have missed it. Soon they arrive at a remote village, built at the side of a hill, and their car, a dilapidated SUV, comes to a halt when its engine gets overheated in the climb. Two of the men go in search of someone to fix it (and disappear from view), the third, joined by a boy who is to be his guide, climbs up to the village, an assortment of clay huts, where the villagers live a primitive sort of existence. We see chickens running in the yards, goats copulating, old men sitting at an open air café run by an aggressive woman arguing with her customers, and children about to take a quiz at school. The man, whose name is Behzad we soon learn, is a tall, lean fellow, with eyeglasses, clad in jeans and loose shirt, and has an air of urbanity about him. The boy leads him to a place where we are told he is to spend a few days. We still do not know exactly why he is there—whether sent or is on a mission of his own–but he totes a camera and carries a cell phone which seems of no use, because when it rings he has to get back to his car and drive to a height to hear it. We soon gather, through the questions he puts to the boy-guide, that he is interested in a 100-year-old woman, whose name is Malek (we never see her), who is sick and about to die.

Nothing much happens after that, and still we wonder exactly why he is there. He is being referred to as an engineer, but it becomes rather evident that he and his colleagues are to photograph the old woman’s funeral once she is dead–which explains the cell phone and the camera. Through his first phone conversation we learn that he has a family, and is talking to his father (who called him), inquiring about the health of his mother, also presumably sick. He learns that he will miss funeral of relative who has died. When he questions the boy about an old lady’s age, the boy answers that she is between 100 and 150 years old—and the man, in rather humorous tones responds that after 100 it doesn’t matter how old you really are. Behzad stays in the village for weeks, though the old woman’s death, which has been predicted to occur in three days, never happens. But we do get some news about her, as the boy/guide tells him that she has been visited by her relatives, and has eaten soup last night. Behzad dashes up the hill several times when his phone rings, talking to his female (we gather) employer, trying to forestall her objections for staying so long on his mission—he had stated the old woman would be dead in three days. During one of his excursions there, he discovers a man digging a hole—for “telecommunications” we are told—but we see neither the man nor the hole, just Behzad staring into it. But in the course of the story we learn that the man’s name is Youssef, and that he is engaged to a sixteen year old girl, Zeynab, whom Behzad meets briefly (and tries to court) when she milks a cow to get him some milk. In his last visit to the hill Behzad sees smoke coming out of the hole and calls from help. Men are seen putting Youssef, unconscious into Behzad’s car, while he rides on the doctor’s motorcycle to go to town to retrieve his car. He and the doctor have brief conversations as they are driving through the fields, the doctor assuring him that the man will live if he gets oxygen in time. He then philosophically states that life is preferable to any “promises” of an afterlife. “Enjoy the present, do not anticipate resurrection,” he adds. Behzad is next seen back in the village with his car, finally getting his wish. The old woman has died, and he gets busy taking several shots of the village women lining up through the streets of the village to attend the funeral.

In a typical Kiarostami fashion, this is a minimalist film, practically plotless and focusing on one person whose motives and purpose we can only guess at. As in Cherry, the story is told entirely from the point of view of the main character, in this case Behzad. We see only part of what he sees, in reaction shots—his face telling us, more or less, what he feels, but practically nothing else. This method is story-telling by omission: He looks at a hole (in a very similar situation in Cherry, we also do not see the hole the man there intends to bury himself in), but the camera does not oblige, avoiding to show us what he is looking at—as we habitually see in a typical Hollywood movie, where multiple cameras photograph an event from different angles, leaving room for the cross-cutting and continuity of montage. Kiarostami shoots from one point (or so it seems), making his man the center of his action. Occasionally, the camera will focus on someone else—a bent woman walking away in the street, a pregnant woman hanging clothes on a line, an old man tottering through the narrow village lanes. But in all these cases, the man (our man) is looking on. So we never lose his point of view. That enables us to follow his mind, his thoughts, at least to observe his movements—for there is no voice over to tell us what he thinks; that is carefully avoided, and the only time we know his thoughts is when he actually expresses them in dialogue. He seems curious, but not excessively so, dedicated to his task, to photograph the woman’s death, though she (comically) refuses to die—but he does not express any feelings about her, except in the few words he exchanges with the boy in wry humor about old age. He takes, it seems, a genuine interest in the young boy’s education, and tries to help him with his quiz—even giving him a wrong answer to see whether the boy just memorizes what he hears from the teacher, or actually learns by thinking. At times, he is bored, or even cruel, when on the top of the hill he sees a turtle crawling along and sadistically overturns it. On the whole, he seems likeable, though, and the villagers go out of their way to treat him as their guest, except for one of the women (Zeynab’s mother) who refuses his money when he tries to pay for milk. In a strange way, he seems to be visiting a foreign world—the village is so remote, unchanged in generations, bound in the cycles of nature, and, like the old lady who refuses to die, having achieved some sort of immortality. Essentially, his odyssey is the discovery of this fact—though it is uncertain that he fully realizes it.

Immortality may actually be the theme of the story—a reverse sort of immortality, for it exists in life, not something one expects after it. This theme is actually expressed in the dialogue between the man and the boy, between the man and the doctor, implicitly in the old woman’s hanging on to a seemingly useless existence, and in the imagery of the story. An assortment of pregnant women—some in their ninth or tenth child, and still young—suggests fertility, unusual in cities, but very much the essence of life in the country. When the man asks one of these women what the men do during the year, he is told that most of the young men work for about three months in the summer, harvesting, and stay idle in the winter. Slyly, he replies that they are not so idle, in fact they work “harder” in the winter—and she catches his meaning. That’s the cycle of nature—plant in the winter, reap (children) in the summer. The boy—a very likeable, smiling boy—is in fact an important node in the story: he is life, immortality, for in a village like this he will always be there. The villagers have not immigrated to towns, and, though absent from the film, they are there in the fields to support the village and its life.

The village is nature, always surviving harsh winters, isolation, remoteness, absence of comfort (in the modern sense), lacking all the trappings of modernity. But the village, like nature, is immortal; its never-changing natural cycle is its immortality. It is anchored in life through fertility of the land, and of the human body, not to speak of the its spirit, for old people hang on, as if defying age, and even though the only thing they can enjoy is clean air. That is worth living for.

The film fully explores the landscape and, through numerous long shots, its vistas are seen by the eye of the camera in all their magnificence. Some mountains peaks, valleys, hill tops, and plains where wheat is yellowing and fluctuating in the wind, ready for harvesting are the nodes the camera richly explores, a feast for the eyes. Herds of sheep and goats, symbols of fertility, are seen passing, driven by young shepherds and watched by shepherd dogs. The turtle, whose path the man has disturbed by overturning it, rights itself scraping and scratching with its legs and a dung beetle is seen pushing a ball three times its size through rough ground. Nature struggles, but it survives. “The Wind Will Carry Us,” the title of the film, is a line from a poem the man recites to a young girl who is milking a cow (or another animal) to give him the milk he had asked for. Wheat stalks with grains on their tops actually fluctuate when the wind passes over them. The wind is nature, the essence of life. It is what carries and guides humanity—perhaps humanity not encroached by the mechanized world—in its forward path. The man may not have fully learned this lesson (he was there for a thrill of photography), but the viewer may. The last shots of the film concern a thigh bone Behzad had recovered from Youssef, the first time he saw him digging the well. He keeps the bone in the dashboard of his car throughout the story, but when he is about to leave the village, he tosses it into a stream, one of the few places where water, and green things around it are seen in the arid landscape of the village. The bone floats long the stream and passes on, as the camera lingers on a goat or two at the banks of the stream, picking on thorny bushes or taking a sip of water. The bone may be the remnant of a human, past and gone, but the water, green pasture, and the animals are symbols of life.

[1] Reference: Kiarostami’s “Commentary” in The Taste of Cherry, “Criterion Collection,” DVD edition, 2000.