NEW YORK — The films of the internationally-celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami have always been deeply rooted in the unique culture, landscapes, and textures of his homeland. But with government restrictions on Iranian filmmakers becoming more onerous in recent years, Kiarostami has shifted to working outside of his native country. His two most recent dramas — “Certified Copy,” which rambles through the Tuscan countryside, and “Like Someone in Love,” set in a kinetic modern Tokyo — mark the first fiction features that the 72-year-old auteur has directed beyond the borders of Iran in a career spanning more than 40 years.
This move away from his physical roots has served to underline what Kiarostami has long insisted about his poetic and lyrical films: that they’re about the human experience and intended to resonate beyond his homeland.
“Generally speaking, I believe that being Iranian or being American or being French doesn’t really mean anything. What I’m trying to show in my films is that there is something beyond that, something universal, that connects us,” he said, speaking in Farsi through an interpreter, during an interview last fall at the New York Film Festival, where “Like Someone in Love” made its American premiere. The film opens in the Boston area on Friday.
“I did respect Japanese specificities and I tried to avoid any cultural mistake [in making ‘Like Someone in Love’] ... But my whole purpose in making films and in going to Japan or to Italy is not to focus on our differences as people in the world, but on our resemblances, in terms of our feelings and thoughts and the problems that we face.”
Despite a shift to foreign languages and locales, Kiarostami’s films remain grounded in the major formal and thematic preoccupations that have been the hallmarks of his career, including the often fluid nature of identity and the ease with which people embrace that shiftiness, the fuzzy line between truth and illusion, and the role of cinema in fostering those illusions and shifting perspectives.
In his 2011 film “Certified Copy,” a man and woman, recent acquaintances, amble through a small Tuscan village discussing the value of copies in relation to originals in art and life. At a cafe, the proprietor mistakes them for a married couple, and the woman plays along. But afterward, when the couple starts acting the part of longtime lovers, quarreling about past disappointments and regrets and trying to reignite the flame of their love, viewers wonder about the true nature of their relationship. Are they the strangers who only recently met or, in fact, a married couple? Which part of the film is “real”?
“Like Someone in Love” centers on an encounter between a young female university student, Akiko, who moonlights as a call girl, and an elderly, widowed client, Takashi, who seems to be looking for companionship more than sex. The next morning, the nurturing Takashi, a bookish and lonely scholar, drives Akiko to school. From his car, he witnesses an altercation between Akiko and her volatile boyfriend, Noriaki. When Noriaki mistakes Takashi for her grandfather, the older man plays along with the mistake. But the possessive Noriaki is unaware of his girlfriend’s double-life, and as Takashi’s ruse becomes more elaborate, it threatens to spiral out of control.
These seemingly straightforward narratives carry a beguiling sense of mystery that extends to the characters, who conceal, evade, and hide their true feelings and intentions. What his characters leave unspoken, what pulsates within the silences of a conversation, can be as important as the words they speak to each other.
“I think when you’re young, you have the illusion that you can understand every single aspect of life and of human beings. But then what you learn through different experiences and through age and time is that, hopelessly, you cannot,” he said. “But it gives you another hope, which is appreciating the complexity of human beings and understanding that mystery and secretiveness is a part of human nature — I think out of insecurity. Because people don’t feel safe to show themselves as they are. For their survival, they need to hide and to disguise themselves. And so once you’ve understood that, you deal with the truth that life is very often shown to you from behind a veil.”
Peering from behind his signature tinted glasses, Kiarostami can be an enigmatic figure himself, sometimes offering elliptical or ambiguous answers. While he avoids expansive explanations of his films, he doesn’t hesitate to articulate certain intentions and impulses and some of the philosophical ideas that underpin his work.
To foster that mystery in his films, Kiarostami withholds information, context, and even scenes that many viewers would feel are necessary to the story.
“He refuses to give the audience everything that they may want, denies them certain things, so that they have to fill in those details themselves,” said Robert Koehler, who programmed last month’s Kiarostami retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he recently stepped down as the director of year-round programming. “He believes in never quite completing the story, leaving the film what would seem to be slightly unfinished and open, so that the audience or the viewer can complete it themselves.”
Kiarostami burst onto the international scene in 1990 with “Close-Up,” a seminal film in the history of Iranian cinema that pioneered the now-prevalent but then-unusual fusion of documentary and fiction techniques. It’s based on a real-life case of a man who was arrested for impersonating a celebrated Iranian filmmaker and insinuating himself into the lives of a middle-class family while promising them parts in his next film. The real-life figures in the case, including the accused con man and judge presiding over the trial, played themselves in the film.
“His whole body of work questions the notion of whether what we see in a nonfiction film is in fact truer or more real than what we see in a fiction film. Maybe what we’re seeing in the fiction is truer than in the nonfiction,” said Koehler, speaking by phone. “He’s also exploring how nonfiction bleeds over into the fiction — and vice versa.”
The early ’90s critical success of “Close-Up” helped propel Iranian cinema, which has flourished over the past two decades, into the international spotlight, spawning a wave of new cinematic voices. Kiarostami went on to capture the top prize at Cannes in 1997 for “Taste of Cherry” and is now firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the world’s greatest living filmmakers.
Still, for more than 15 years now, his films have not been allowed to screen in Iran. While he can get the permits necessary to make films there, he has turned abroad partly to avoid the difficult conditions under which many Iranian filmmakers operate — especially in the wake of government crackdowns following the Green Revolution movement of 2009.
“I know how to make films that censorship cannot touch or mutilate in any way. Censoring my work is impossible or useless,” he says. “So their problem with me is not the nature of my films, but the fact that I’m independent — that I happen to be one film director who doesn’t need any financial support.”
Despite government interference and crackdowns (which has resulted in the house arrest of the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jafar Panahi, among others), Kiarostami remains bullish about the continued vibrancy of Iranian cinema.
“Even in the most remote villages of Iran, thanks to digital technology, people are making films, documentaries, video art, things that are really fascinating. And this new generation of filmmakers seem much stronger than all the pressures and restrictions that are put upon their shoulders. Whether these restrictions are helping them as a motivation, or whether they are really bothering and stifling them, it’s still too early to judge. But what’s obvious is that there is a real revolution, a real birth of a new cinema in Iran these days.”