In Abbas Kiarostami’s THE WIND WILL CARRY US, a few men go off to a secluded Iranian village hidden behind the scale of a mountainscape. They’re hoping to record and document a ritualistic mourning process that will occur after an elderly local woman dies, but the woman doesn’t pass away, and so they’re stuck. They spend the course of the movie milling about town, hiding their identities, and killing time until the ceremony happens. You want to talk about the “elements of cinema,” well, here’s a film that uses them in singular ways: During the course of the entire film, we only see one member of said crew (“the Engineer,”) and we never even see the elderly woman in question. In fact, many of the main characters in the film are offscreen for the whole running time. Heard often, but never seen.
It all derives from an idea Kiarostami once explicated on in an essay, “An Unfinished Cinema.” In it, he argued that films need to have “voids”—they need to be extremely open to interpretation. “Faultless stories that work perfectly have one major defect,” he wrote, “they work too well to allow the audience to intervene … a story also requires gaps; empty spaces like in a crossword puzzle.” That’s what THE WIND WILL CARRY US offers: a half-written story, told with the laconic rhythm of daily life in the aforementioned village, with enough unillustrated passages that each audience will bring their own meaning—and their own images—to it.
As a result of this ‘film theory,’ there’s a deep mysteriousness imbued in WIND. The Engineer slowly becomes agitated by the slowness of his subject’s demise (at one point, he glibly hints he’d like to execute the old woman with a pickaxe,) but never actually explicates his motivation in documenting it. Whether he’s doing it for art, commerce, an assignment, family or something else entirely is left untold. When it comes to Kiarostami, this is incredibly telling: he’s not mysterious about tone or atmosphere or setting, the way so many other filmmakers are; but rather attaches the element of elusiveness to human beings themselves. That’s what he’s interested in investigating.
Don’t get us wrong, though: despite the “unfinished” aspects, WIND is an incredibly lively film, full of provocative cultural insights, startlingly beautiful landscape photography, and amusingly humorous interludes. Kiarostami repeatedly uses the same visual compositions so as to familiarize us with the labyrinth of the village, and finds great comic effect in images of characters running to and fro throughout its maze-like design. He often uses a bird’s eye view or long shots to collect the movement of multiple characters within the frame together, which allows him to visually communicate motivations (The Engineer is always chasing people down.) The film becomes a gentle comedy about a community schism: the modern has intruded upon the traditional, and all is sent into flux.
What helps bring WIND to the levels of profundity is that Kiarostami doesn’t take sides. The ritual the Engineer is out to document indeed seems somewhat barbaric—some mourners are expected to injure themselves—so their actions are, in some sense, as questionable as his exploitation. That makes WIND a dialectic story: the poor villagers are calmly waiting for the representatives of the modern world to leave, and the documentarians are waiting for the old-world villagers to die out, with Kiarostami leaving room for his audience to impart their own morality on the events.
It’s quite apt, as mentioned, that the Brattle will be showing this film as part of its running “Elements of Cinema” series. What are those elements? Visual composition, sound, the blocking of actors, the movement of the camera? Kiarostami is a master craftsman in all those respects, and uses that ability to present a vision of daily life that Jonathan Rosenbaum went so far as to call “Brueghel-esque.” WIND truly earns that comparison, with shots and sequences full of the gleeful, sometimes crass, sometimes tragic, and oft-hilarious behaviors of human existence. That extends from traditional actions—a sprint to school, or the herding of goats—to the film’s central running gag, which sees the Engineer sprinting up to a hill, adjacent to the village, every time he receives a phone call. (It’s the only way he can get any reception.)
That particular joke is a genuinely uproarious touch; the repeated image of this man compelled to sprint away from whatever he’s doing at a moment’s notice, just because a small machine in his pocket starts to emit a beep. (In that joke, and in many others that make smart use of rushed movement within static screen spaces to mock the smallness of human behavior and existence, WIND becomes almost Tati-esque.) No matter how you interpret THE WIND WILL CARRY US, the way Kiarostami makes use of the form’s elements—the tiny movement he creates within faraway landscape shots, the belabored errands he shows us from a god’s-eye view of the town —are sure to give you some pleasure, and some laughs. This is a humanist comedy of colossal proportions.