Film Structure: Purposeful Vagueness in Iranian Film
In their script writing guide for students, the New York Film Academy outlines a basic screenplay structure that has been used successfully for many years. It is a structure that they encourage students to take into account as they write their screenplays, calling it “the go-to structure for films pretty much since cinematography began.” It moves from setup to plot point one, confrontation, plot point two, and finally to resolution. It is a structure that has been used in countless movies. Most movies follow it, just as they did many years ago. It is a structure that transcends genre and time, but it is not the only film structure.
There is an alternate structure, albeit much less common in American cinema, in which a film has no clear resolution. Films of this nature are few and far between in Hollywood, though they exist in abundance in other parts of the world, including much of Europe and Iran. Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (طعم گيلاس) is one such film. It follows a Mr. Badii, a man who has decided to kill himself, as he drives through Tehran in search of someone to bury him once he has died. After a lengthy search, he finds a somewhat begrudging assistant, who agrees to fill in the grave if he finds Mr. Badii dead. The audience watches Mr. Badii lie down in the grave he has dug, but the film fades to black without a definitive conclusion.
The same structure is deployed by Asghar Farhadi in A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین). The film centers on the divorce proceedings of an Iranian couple, and the custody decision that their daughter must make. She may either leave Iran with her mother or stay with her father. The film ends with Termeh, the daughter, telling the judge that she has made her decision, but that she would like her parents to leave the room before she voices it. The audience is not informed of her decision, and the end credits roll. Both films were international successes, as Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and A Separation won an Academy Award. Both films confused and frustrated audiences. There is something that can be not only shocking, but off-putting about a film that tosses aside a time honored format to take a less traveled path.
These moments of shock and confusion can also be moments of deep contemplation. Viewers are forced to fill in the blanks in the story with their own thoughts. They are forced to decide not only what they think Termeh should do, but what she does. Audience members become more engaged in the story. They are forced to put themselves in Mr. Badii’s mind, to decide what he will do. These films are an examination of the minds of their protagonists, for audiences are not told exactly what their protagonist does. Instead they come to a conclusion, or explore multiple conclusions, based upon the information that has been presented to them in the film.
Though the traditional film play structure has produced a wide variety of wonderful films throughout the years, there is something uniquely intriguing about a film with no concrete ending. Films in this vein engage the audience in a way that traditionally structured films are not capable of doing. So go: watch Iranian films and come to your own conclusions on how the story resolves!