Combustible Celluloid

The Koker Trilogy [Blu-ray] (2019)

Road Signs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

September 3 2019 — The Criterion Collection's DVD and Blu-ray release of Abbas Kiarostami's Koker Trilogy is perhaps the year's most essential. These films represent cinema art at its pinnacle, and to date they have not been readily available to see in the U.S. I managed to see the first two, Where Is the Friend's House? (1987) and And Life Goes On (1992) on VHS tapes about a million years ago (the second one I also found streaming on YouTube), and the third one, Through the Olive Trees (1994), I found some years back on a bootleg DVD. To have them remastered and restored with Criterion quality on Blu-ray is a gift.

I saw my first Iranian film, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh, in 1997. To the best of my knowledge, it was only the second Iranian film, after Jafar Panahi's remarkable debut The White Balloon, to receive any kind of distribution in America, and it was soon followed by many more, an embarrassment of riches that became part of the Iranian New Wave. I was smitten, and I tried to see as many films as I could from this beautiful movement. In their home country, films were heavily regulated and censored, and yet they had a grace and gentleness that seemed rare and genuine. The films were often about children (who could be shown without wearing the required headscarves), and often depicted journeys or searchings for things, and very often, these were never about the destination or the goal, but about the journey itself. Additionally, many of the films seemed to turn in upon themselves, holding a mirror up to cinema.

By chance, Kiarostami's Palme d'Or winner Taste of Cherry followed in 1998, and that was the beginning of my discovery of one of the most preeminent filmmakers of all time. I found Where Is the Friend's House? and was enchanted by it. It would remain a great film all by itself, had the massive 1990 earthquake not occurred. But because of Kiarostami's emotional and artistic response to the earthquake, it has become enmeshed in a masterful trilogy about life and cinema and more. Perhaps it was Kiarostami's work on his most acclaimed film, Close-Up, that gave him the insight to explore the subject from a cinema lens.

And Life Goes On was not exactly a sequel, but it was a fictional film that took place in a real world where Where Is the Friend's House? existed and where the earthquake had taken place. Through the Olive Trees is perhaps the most beautiful and complex of the three. Its connection to the other films is less direct, depicting a film shoot that, ostensibly, has something to do with And Life Goes On, and features characters that have been affected by the earthquake, but from there, its poetic blurring of life and art is truly moving and masterful.

Criterion's Blu-ray set, appropriately, features three separate Blu-ray sleeves that fold inside each other, rather than sliding in side-by-side. In this way, the cover art for the three titles by Eric Skillman is also intertwined. The transfers are as beautiful as anything I've ever seen, though, of course, I don't have much to compare them to; they include uncompressed monaural soundtracks, and the new subtitle translations are seamless. Each disc comes with a selection of amazing bonuses, none more exciting than yet another Kiarostami film, the documentary Homework (1989), which I had never been able to see. (I will post a review once I watch it.)

Other bonuses include an audio commentary on And Life Goes On featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, coauthors of a book on Kiarostami; a 1994 documentary, Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams; a new interview with Kiarostami's son Ahmad Kiarostami; a new conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire; a new interview with scholar Hamid Naficy, and, finally, a conversation from 2015 between Abbas Kiarostami and programmer Peter Scarlet. Scarlet had once been in charge of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where, in 2000, he put together a tribute to the filmmaker, with screenings of many of his classics. I caught a press screening of the early film The Traveler (1974), and I heard Kiarostami speak at a screening of his new film at the time, The Wind Will Carry Us (which I saw twice).

Kiarostami died in 2016, a major blow to cinephiles everywhere, but his works live on. Many thanks to the Criterion Collection for their indispensable work on this release.

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