Combustible Celluloid
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With: Farhad Farhadi, Salma Mansh, Soheyla Bazigar, Shabnam Taghadomi, Hedyeh Esfahani, Reza Golfaam, Bahman Raad, Shahab Ehsani, Ali Mostafavi, July Lavazza, Antonio Sabatinin, Azadeh Esteghlali, Peter Small, Fatemeh Alizadeh, Ali Shojanoori
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 114
Date: 03/16/2018

24 Frames (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Still Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

My adoration for the work of Abbas Kiarostami started shortly after I became a film critic and attended a screening of Taste of Cherry. The movie fascinated me while it perturbed many others, and I began researching and trying to see as many Iranian movies as I could. I found many talented filmmakers, but Kiarostami's work rose to the top, especially his "earthquake trilogy" (Where Is the Friend's Home?; Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees) and the masterpiece Close-Up. I was enthralled by his use of individuals in uncertain landscapes, either in cars, or on roads.

A few years later, in 2000, he was invited to the San Francisco International Film Festival, and I saw his great The Wind Will Carry Us, twice, and listened to him speak (through a translator) at the Kabuki Theater. I never had the chance to interview him, but my colleague, the late Judy Stone, became quite close with him and regaled me with tales of her visits with him.

After that, Kiarostami turned to more experimental works, from imaginatively constructed narratives like Ten and Certified Copy to more purely abstract works, like Five Dedicated to Ozu and Shirin. I was never sure I liked the experimental stuff as much as I liked his earlier narratives, but any new Kiarostami work was cause for excitement.

Now Kiarostami is gone, passed away on July 4 of 2016, at the age of 76, and we are graced now with his final work, 24 Frames. It's another experimental film, and I can't be sure of how I would have reacted if the master were still alive, but with things as they are, I watched it with a certain final melancholy. I saw great beauty and sadness, trying to imagine the director's final thoughts of his time on this planet, and as a result I think it's a great film, and a last masterpiece.

The idea is that a painting or a photograph takes up only one instant of time, and Kiarostami wondered what might have happened before and after that instant, and decided to use cinema to explore these things. Each segment lasts about four and a half minutes, and presumably the "snapshot" occurs somewhere in the middle. He begins with a painting, his first "frame," a 16th century painting called The Hunters in the Snow. We are allowed to ponder the work, and then animated birds and a dog wander in and out of the picture.

Hunters and snow and birds and dogs — and many other animals — continue throughout. From there it turns to photos, both black-and-white and color. Horses run on a snowy countryside, viewed from a car window. A cow sleeps on a beach while its fellows wander by. Deer forage in the woods. Birds squabble over perching places. Wolves prowl for food. Sometimes the scenes have funny little moments, and sometimes there are tragic turns. Often, the views are framed by windows, fences, or other naturally-occurring lines.

One frame features humans. Six tourists gather to gaze at the Eiffel Tower, their backs to the camera. They remain still throughout the four minutes as it begins to snow, people walk by in the foreground, and the tower is lit up at night. Sometimes, subjects appear blurry or motionless in the foreground, and we're left to wonder just what the shape actually is. Most segments are quiet, but others contain music, from "Ave Maria" to an Andrew Lloyd Webber song.

It's hauntingly beautiful. Essentially, Kiarostami is using the segments to illustrate both togetherness and isolation. Subjects in some segments seem altogether unaware of other subjects, while others interact with one another in various ways. But as the long, unbroken shots play out, they have a mesmerizing effect. It's easy to get lost in thought on any number of subjects, including the nature of time and the nature of cinema, and especially, life and death (most of the scenes seem to take place in winter, with a tone of finality).

The final frame is one of the most moving. It shows a computer screen on a desk in front of a large picture window. It seems to be very early dawn, still a little dark, and the wind moves the trees outside. A figure is hunched over the desk; after a moment, it stirs. Is it a man sleeping? On the computer screen is an image from what appears to be a black and white movie (The Best Years of Our Lives). It's moving a frame at a time, a frame every few seconds. A man and a woman embrace and kiss. The picture fades out, replaced by "THE END." Over this, the Webber song "Love Never Dies" plays.

Is it a hopeful ending? Or ironic? As with the ending of Taste of Cherry, it could be both, or anything. As much as, or more than, any other filmmaker, Kiarostami handled death in his movies, but used it to enhance life. And now that he himself is dead, his work takes on a new, unexpected resonance. And 24 Frames is a fitting, final work in a remarkable career.

Fittingly, the Criterion Collection has released 24 Frames on Blu-ray. The pictorial quality is flawless and the audio is perfectly immersive. (It's a 2K digital master with a 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack.) Bonuses include an 8-minute interview with Kiarostamis son Ahmad, who helped finish the film; a conversation between Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire (10 mins.); a short documentary about the making of the film by Abbas Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh (14 mins); and a trailer. The liner notes essay is by Bilge Ebiri.

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