Two years ago, I was in Cartagena, Colombia, teaching a workshop in cultural journalism under the auspices of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation. The local film festival was running concurrently, and one of its visiting masters was the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. The organizer of our program persuaded him to chat with the group about his work, and persuaded me to moderate the encounter.
The plan was that Mr. Kiarostami and I would converse with the aid of his translator, since the filmmaker’s English was apparently only a little better than my Farsi. The unforeseen wrinkle was that the translator spoke only Farsi and Spanish, the first language of most of my students and, of course, the idiom of the country where we all happened to be.
Mr. Kiarostami first came to prominence as the pre-eminent representative of a resurgent national cinema in Iran.
But we could hardly just stand around smiling and nodding. A game of multilingual telephone ensued. I would hand off an English question to one of the translators, who passed along a Spanish version that would reach Mr. Kiarostami in his native language, at which point the process reversed. The remarkable thing is not that we managed to keep this clumsy human version of Google Translate going for much longer than the allotted hour, as we ate pistachios and sipped limeade in a humid courtyard, but that after a while it seemed like an utterly natural form of communication.
Viewers of foreign-language films sometimes forget that they are reading subtitles instead of understanding what the actors are saying. Something similar happened that evening, a hallucinatory melting of linguistic barriers. I remembered a few phrases of long-ago college Spanish, and so could now and then skip a step in the translators’ bucket brigade. Mr. Kiarostami’s translator was as quick and nimble as an Olympic athlete, and Mr. Kiarostami himself was as patient as a teacher in a roomful of earnest slow learners. But afterward many of us agreed that we had experienced something much stranger and more profound than a successful search for verbal equivalents. We swore that for a short but intense period, under the spell of the filmmaker’s quiet charisma, we had all been thinking in Persian.
Abdolrahman Bagheri in “A Taste of Cherry,” directed by Mr. Kiarostami.
But perhaps we had just been thinking in Kiarostami, albeit without the aid of the usual apparatus of moving pictures and recorded sounds. A poet and photographer as well as filmmaker, Mr. Kiarostami was as steeped in Persian literary traditions as he was devoted to the transparency of the photographic image. Watching his films, you are sometimes aware that specific cultural and historical nuances may be eluding you. At the same time, what you see is always absolutely clear, even if its meanings are sometimes enigmatic.
Mr. Kiarostami started out making educational films, often featuring children and ostensibly meant for young viewers, and even as his work grew more abstract in its methods and more adult in its themes, a vital element of plainness — a preference for showing and pointing out and paying attention over lecturing or narrating — remained.
William Shimell and Juliette Binoche in Mr. Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.”
Some of his movies turned on mysteries of motive and perception. Why does Mr. Badii, the motorist whose car is the principal set of “A Taste of Cherry,” want to commit suicide? What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the characters played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell in “Certified Copy”? That movie’s dialogue may be in English, French and Italian, but its language is pure Kiarostami.
This is not to say that Mr. Kiarostami, who died on Monday at 76, was an artist without roots or local affiliations. He first came to prominence as the pre-eminent representative of a resurgent national cinema. In the 1990s, when the Koker Trilogy (“Where Is the Friend’s Home,” “Life and Nothing More” and “Through the Olive Trees”) made its way to art houses around the world and “A Taste of Cherry” shared a Palme d’Or, Mr. Kiarostami became the most celebrated member of a wave that included his longtime friend and sometime collaborator Mohsen Makhmalbaf as well as younger directors like Jafar Panahi (who started out as Mr. Kiarostami’s assistant director) and Majid Majidi. Iranian movies were ubiquitous at major international festivals, and their success seemed to be a sign of the cultural and political opening associated with Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the ’80s and early ’90s and its president from 1997 until 2005.
Mr. Kiarostami’s “Five,” a video piece dedicated to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
More recently, Iranian films have moved toward psychological drama and social criticism, neither of which figured among Mr. Kiarostami’s major concerns. This is not to say that he was indifferent to the emotions of his characters or their circumstances, but rather that he viewed the world and its human inhabitants from a particular philosophical angle, a curiosity both about the texture of reality and about the camera’s effect on it. His movies are at once highly self-conscious — the viewer is often intensely aware of the presence of the camera, and occasionally of the man behind it — and bluntly naturalistic.
Mr. Kiarostami seemed sometimes to want to find the essence of cinema by subtracting as many of its effects as possible. “Ten” is made up of 10 unedited shots, each one about 10 minutes long, taken of a Tehran driver and her passengers by a camera mounted on the dashboard of her car. A film without a filmmaker, in a sense. As is “Five,” a video piece dedicated to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, which consists of five static shots of landscapes, including a moonlit pond whose serenity is disrupted by the croaking of unseen frogs.
In Cartagena, Mr. Kiarostami invoked those frogs — for a minute I thought he was talking about the ducks that appear in another part of “Five” — as something of a metaphor, an example of the serendipitous irruption of reality into a carefully planned composition. Reality can intrude catastrophically, in the form of natural or political disasters. And the process is reversible: Film also changes reality, injecting new meanings and dimensions into its mute, mundane manifestations. It does this in small ways, as when a child looks directly into the camera or an actor decides to ignore its presence.
In large ways, too. To an extent that we have only begun to grasp, movies invented a new way of thinking, and Abbas Kiarostami’s movies are among the clearest and most challenging applications of cinematic thought. What happened in Cartagena that evening was what will always happen when someone watches a Kiarostami film with the right kind of attention, which is to say an openness to confusion and to the wonder of the ordinary. You don’t speak his language, but you are somehow inside his head. And he is in yours.