An Iranian Filmmaking Masters Ode to His Own Mortality

Abbas Kiarostami died of complications from gastrointestinal cancer on July 4, 2016, at the age of 76, leaving behind one of the most distinctive and breathtaking oeuvres in movie history.

Beginning his career with shorts before transitioning to features in the late 1970s, he achieved international acclaim with Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), A Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and then found further success with the daring Five (2003) and mesmerizing Certified Copy (2010). In the process, the Iranian-born director pushed the medium into daring and inventive realms, seguing between a variety of modesincluding, most notably, blending fiction and non-fiction methods in unique waysto create a new sort of cinema. As Jean-Luc Godard once famously pronounced, Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with AbbasKiarostami.

Thus, his passing was nothing short of a tremendous loss. Although before he departed, he left us with a final masterwork, which arrives in U.S. theaters this Friday, February 2a truly idiosyncratic film that once again confirms that Kiarostami was a one of a kind artist.

24 Frames is a most unconventional effort, one that cant be wholly classified as either a drama or documentary. Fascinated by still photography andas prologue text makes clearforever curious about what took place before and after a given picture was immortalized by his camera, Kiarostami embarked on this film, which functions, in a fundamental sense, as a simultaneously somber and playful act of cine-imagination. Guided by a simple, symmetrical structure, the movie is divided into twenty-four frames (i.e. segments), each one lasting approximately four-and-a-half minutes, and presenting a single image thatsave for the opening vignettewas taken by Kiarostami with a traditional photographic camera. Yet theres nothing static about what unfolds, as the director then uses digital techniques (primarily, the insertion of green-screened video material) to make these stills come to vibrant, animated life.

Kiarostami begins with Bruegels 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow, which quickly shakes off its inertia as smoke begins blowing out of chimneys, noisy birds move about, and dogs run around women stoking fires. Through this formal trickery, Kiarostami situates viewers in a realm thats somewhere between the artificial and the realand whose illusory atmosphere is amplified by the fact that the images active components have a slightly digital sheen to them, further calling attention to the materials inauthenticity. Except, of course, that what the director achieves is nonetheless deeply authentic, a heightened sort of realism that recalls the ecstatic truth that Werner Herzog claims he strives for in his own work.

After that introduction, the remainder of 24 Frames focuses on vistas snapped by Kiarostami himself. The vast majority of them share a handful of elements: theyre in black-and-white; theyre populated not by humans but by birds (or cows); theyre set at the ocean or snow-covered landscapes (often with falling snow); theyre generally awash in natural sounds; and theyre spied through windows. Since aside from the second passage the camera doesnt move, the film compels us to scan the frame for information, to investigate its nooks and crannies, and to study its inhabitantsa process that, after a short while, makes you feel as if youre actually falling into the screen, losing yourself in dark foliage passageways, or drifting outward over the foregrounds breaking waves and into the vast sea. Per Kiarostami tradition, theres a simple, hypnotic poeticism at play here, enveloping the senses and stimulating the mind.

While staring at these lovely sights for 114 minutes is a reward unto itself, theres predictably more to the proceedings than merely abstract audio-video pleasures. Kiarostami doesnt reveal the purpose of this swan-song project; each vignette is delivered sans commentary. However, the more one gives in to its laconic rhythms and becomes attuned to its underlying wavelength, the more that patterns, and possible interpretations, begin to materialize. Solitary animals begin to represent isolation and loneliness. Other creatures, appearing in pairs or groups, leave an impression of, respectively, companionship, compassion and conflictor, in the amusing case of two lions who have less-than-romantic sex, of the dynamics that govern male-female relations. The window frames that so conspicuously surround the action become self-conscious nods to the man-made construction of the movie itself.

And then theres the constant movement that Kiarostami initiates, which often takes the form of animals trudging across the screenand which speaks to the films fundamental preoccupation with forward progress in every endeavor, at every given instant. As it methodically proceeds from one segment to the next, 24 Frames becomes an impressionistic collage of captured moments that cant stay still; they have to swing and sway in the wind, burrow down into the snow, and scamper across the damp sand. Its a sly, spellbinding treatise on the inherent advancement of life, and, also, the movieswhich, to Kiarostami, are one and the same.

Of course, life develops in only one direction, and as his final big-screen work, its not hard to also read 24 Frames as a personal statement on mortality. Animals are killed in three different episodes, and the gray, snowy weather of so many scenes further casts a deathly pall thats difficult to shake, especially as one witnesses winged and four-legged figures repeatedly sitting alone, only to share brief contact with others before moving on in separate directions. That melancholy air peaks during the films peerlessly executed closing frame, in which, as a person sleeps at a desk and trees rock to and fro in the blustering wind, a desktop iMac plays the last seconds of a classic movie featuring a happy woman kissing a man to the sounds of Love Never Dies from the 2010 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. Concluding once the computer-screen clip fades to The End, its a vision rooted in finality. And yet its also one that expresses loves primacy in all of human experienceas well as Kiarostamis own lifelong, undying romance with the cinema.

At once euphoric and heartbreaking, its one last unforgettable moment in a legendary career defined by them.

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