An Iranian Filmmaking Master’s Ode to His Own Mortality

The late Abbas Kiarostami’s final film, ‘24 Frames,’ is a wondrously poetic tribute to his lifelong love of cinema.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Abbas Kiarostami died of complications from gastrointestinal cancer on July 4, 2016, at the age of 76, leaving behind one of the most distinctive and breathtaking oeuvres in movie history.

Beginning his career with shorts before transitioning to features in the late 1970s, he achieved international acclaim with Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), A Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and then found further success with the daring Five (2003) and mesmerizing Certified Copy (2010). In the process, the Iranian-born director pushed the medium into daring and inventive realms, seguing between a variety of modes—including, most notably, blending fiction and non-fiction methods in unique ways—to create a new sort of cinema. As Jean-Luc Godard once famously pronounced, “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”

Thus, his passing was nothing short of a tremendous loss. Although before he departed, he left us with a final masterwork, which arrives in U.S. theaters this Friday, February 2—a truly idiosyncratic film that once again confirms that Kiarostami was a one of a kind artist.

24 Frames is a most unconventional effort, one that can’t be wholly classified as either a drama or documentary. Fascinated by still photography and—as prologue text makes clear—forever curious about what took place before and after a given picture was immortalized by his camera, Kiarostami embarked on this film, which functions, in a fundamental sense, as a simultaneously somber and playful act of cine-imagination. Guided by a simple, symmetrical structure, the movie is divided into twenty-four frames (i.e. segments), each one lasting approximately four-and-a-half minutes, and presenting a single image that—save for the opening vignette—was taken by Kiarostami with a traditional photographic camera. Yet there’s nothing static about what unfolds, as the director then uses digital techniques (primarily, the insertion of green-screened video material) to make these stills come to vibrant, animated life.

Kiarostami begins with Bruegel’s 1565 painting “The Hunters in the Snow,” which quickly shakes off its inertia as smoke begins blowing out of chimneys, noisy birds move about, and dogs run around women stoking fires. Through this formal trickery, Kiarostami situates viewers in a realm that’s somewhere between the artificial and the real—and whose illusory atmosphere is amplified by the fact that the image’s active components have a slightly digital sheen to them, further calling attention to the material’s inauthenticity. Except, of course, that what the director achieves is nonetheless deeply authentic, a heightened sort of realism that recalls the “ecstatic truth” that Werner Herzog claims he strives for in his own work.

After that introduction, the remainder of 24 Frames focuses on vistas snapped by Kiarostami himself. The vast majority of them share a handful of elements: they’re in black-and-white; they’re populated not by humans but by birds (or cows); they’re set at the ocean or snow-covered landscapes (often with falling snow); they’re generally awash in natural sounds; and they’re spied through windows. Since aside from the second passage the camera doesn’t move, the film compels us to scan the frame for information, to investigate its nooks and crannies, and to study its inhabitants—a process that, after a short while, makes you feel as if you’re actually falling into the screen, losing yourself in dark foliage passageways, or drifting outward over the foreground’s breaking waves and into the vast sea. Per Kiarostami tradition, there’s a simple, hypnotic poeticism at play here, enveloping the senses and stimulating the mind.

While staring at these lovely sights for 114 minutes is a reward unto itself, there’s predictably more to the proceedings than merely abstract audio-video pleasures. Kiarostami doesn’t reveal the purpose of this swan-song project; each vignette is delivered sans commentary. However, the more one gives in to its laconic rhythms and becomes attuned to its underlying wavelength, the more that patterns, and possible interpretations, begin to materialize. Solitary animals begin to represent isolation and loneliness. Other creatures, appearing in pairs or groups, leave an impression of, respectively, companionship, compassion and conflict—or, in the amusing case of two lions who have less-than-romantic sex, of the dynamics that govern male-female relations. The window frames that so conspicuously surround the action become self-conscious nods to the man-made construction of the movie itself.

And then there’s the constant movement that Kiarostami initiates, which often takes the form of animals trudging across the screen—and which speaks to the film’s fundamental preoccupation with forward progress in every endeavor, at every given instant. As it methodically proceeds from one segment to the next, 24 Frames becomes an impressionistic collage of captured moments that can’t stay still; they have to swing and sway in the wind, burrow down into the snow, and scamper across the damp sand. It’s a sly, spellbinding treatise on the inherent advancement of life, and, also, the movies—which, to Kiarostami, are one and the same.

Of course, life develops in only one direction, and as his final big-screen work, it’s not hard to also read 24 Frames as a personal statement on mortality. Animals are killed in three different episodes, and the gray, snowy weather of so many scenes further casts a deathly pall that’s difficult to shake, especially as one witnesses winged and four-legged figures repeatedly sitting alone, only to share brief contact with others before moving on in separate directions. That melancholy air peaks during the film’s peerlessly executed closing frame, in which, as a person sleeps at a desk and trees rock to and fro in the blustering wind, a desktop iMac plays the last seconds of a classic movie featuring a happy woman kissing a man to the sounds of “Love Never Dies” from the 2010 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. Concluding once the computer-screen clip fades to “The End,” it’s a vision rooted in finality. And yet it’s also one that expresses love’s primacy in all of human experience—as well as Kiarostami’s own lifelong, undying romance with the cinema.

At once euphoric and heartbreaking, it’s one last unforgettable moment in a legendary career defined by them.