Winds from the east

Film - Jonathan Romney enjoys the elusive atmosphere of a tale from Tehran

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami once proposed his personal vision of what film should be: "a half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience". This system of blanks and elisions would be designed not to distance or mystify the viewers. It would be more a question of respect, of being generous enough to give us room to move, to find our own way around the imaginative space that a film offers.

That is why, even if I thought I could explain Kiarostami's new film, I would be reluctant to. On the surface, The Wind Will Carry Us may not seem particularly mysterious - events happen, people appear, we know where we are and, more or less, what is going on. Yet the film's meaning is so open to interpretation, if not actually secondary to the experience of watching, that analysis feels somehow beside the point. The film treats its viewers as intelligent beings capable of completing its meaning for themselves - and there is no doubt that this is a job to be taken very seriously. But it is also a very enjoyable job; The Wind Will Carry Us is, I suspect, a film that many people will take very much to heart.

The story is about a group of visitors from Tehran, who arrive in the small Kurdish village of Siah Dareh; their purpose, apparently, is to observe, and presumably to film, the rituals that must follow the death of an old woman. But she refuses to die, and the film crew must settle in and wait for something to happen. Their leader (Behzad Dourani), addressed by the villagers as "Engineer", enlists a young boy as a guide, but rather tries his patience by calling endlessly on his services, even fetching him out of a school exam. Meanwhile, Behzad's colleagues stay indoors and eat strawberries; throughout the film, we hear only their voices.

It is not just the crew who are invisible. Behzad communicates with other off-screen voices. He engages in improbably flirtatious dialogue with a pregnant neighbour. In an extraordinary running joke, he drives repeatedly to a nearby hilltop to take calls on his mobile phone. Up there, he meets an unseen man digging a hole; the digger sends him to visit his fiancee, who milks a cow in a darkened cellar (in this scene, we hear the poem by Forough Farrokhzad that gives the film its title).

Something dramatic does eventually happen, causing Behzad to make himself useful at last. But the film is less about events than about anticipation, and about time and place and the way we experience them. After only a short while, we feel we know every corner of the village, with its precarious balconies and Escher-like multilevel construction, and every stretch of the surrounding countryside. Whenever his mobile summons him, Behzad rushes up and down stairs, drives up hills and round corners to take the call: each time, Kiarostami and the director of photography, Mahmoud Kalari, give us every twist in the road, until we feel we could drive it blindfold ourselves.

Time, too, becomes curiously elastic, both static and mobile. One minute the neighbour is pregnant, the next Behzad is admiring her baby. Meanwhile, the old woman behind the blue-framed window that is one of the village's (and the film's) landmarks still refuses to die.

Beyond the matter of time and place, it is hard to pin down the film to a clear meaning, despite Behzad's apparent acquiring of wisdom in the end. The film is rich in symbols, certainly, potent but not readily understood. What to make, for example, of the bone that is thrown up out of the hole as a friendly offering, which bobs gently down a stream at the end of the film? And how is it significant that only towards the end of the film do we at last, and then with the force of revelation, see the village by night?

The central theme seems to be visibility and invisibility. While so much in the village is hidden, Behzad is practically always on view, almost too much - a blundering urbanite without the discretion to merge with his surroundings. In this sense, the film seems to comment on the role of the film-maker, who should know when to be seen and when to hide.

At moments, the message appears to be simple. "Prefer the present," a doctor advises Behzad as they zoom across a sunlit, corn-filled landscape, at a moment when the film's spatial constrictions seem at last to be lifted. Kiarostami does indeed make us prefer the present - every digression, every eavesdropped conversation in the village bar compellingly distracts us from Behzad's mission. But the film doesn't restrict itself to simple conclusions; to get its meaning, we have to experience its slow, deliberate two hours. As they say, you have to be there.

Kiarostami's fictions, with their semi-documentary approach, are always rooted in the real world, and always invoke real ethical repercussions. His 1990 feature Close-Up recreated an actual legal dispute in fictionalised form, casting the real participants and concluding with their reconciliation. In a similar way, the cast of The Wind Will Carry Us mainly comprises the actual villagers of Siah Dareh. The viewers are the village's guests and, for the film's duration, we live according to the village's sense of time. There is a sense of ethical exchange here - the film requires that, like Behzad, we learn to be good guests. And just as the village invites us to make ourselves at home, the film itself calls on our "creative spirit" to help complete its elusive meaning. Kiarostami's is, you might say, a cinema of hospitality.

The Wind Will Carry Us (U) is currently at the ICA Cinema (020 7930 3647) and the Lux Centre (020 7684 0201) in London

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place