What's the most romantic song ever written? If I told you it was "Love Never Dies," by Andrew Lloyd Webber (the title number from his unsuccessful 2010 musical), you'd probably say I was nuts. But when you come out of the theater after seeing "24 Frames," the final film by Abbas Kiarostami, that song — which I had never heard before — takes up residence in your mental jukebox in a way that's so haunting, for a while it crowds out all the other beauty you've heard.
"24 Frames" isn't a narrative. It's a series of 24 four-and-a-half-minute segments, most of them depicting animals in nature, each one unfolding inside a single static frame. "Love Never Dies," performed by the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins, is played during the final segment, which, coming after a lot of quieter ones, is a stunning and majestic Kiarostami statement about love, cinema, death, technology, censorship, and the 21st century. It is moving, it is cosmic, it is sublime. The rest of "24 Frames" doesn't soar on that level, but it builds up to it, and it's worth sitting through the entire movie to get there.
Kiarostami first revealed that he was making this film in 2015. He said that it consisted of 24 short films he'd been working on the previous three years, and it's unclear what the final timetable was. Yet as you watch "24 Frames," it's nearly impossible to resist viewing elements of its meaning through the lens of Kiarostami's death. (He died on July 4, 2016, of complications relating to gastrointestinal cancer. There has been controversy about his passing, with some having accused his medical team of mishandling his illness.)
Every director makes a final film, but there's a small handful of artists who make their last film with the consciousness of that fact. Directors who've conceived their final films as overt or oblique swan songs include John Huston ("The Dead"), Ingmar Bergman ("Saraband"), and Robert Altman ("A Prairie Home Companion"). "24 Frames" feels like it belongs in that category. It's an elegantly oblique movie, even for Kiarostami, whose art thrums with quiet ethereal metaphor. Yet now that he's gone, I can report that parts of the film play very much like his statement from the beyond. That's one reason why "24 Frames," though it may seem too austere to have much of a chance in theaters, could find a life in the right ones.
The premise of "24 Frames" is that Kiarostami took 24 still images and, using copious and all-but-invisible digital technology, expanded each of them into a flowing live-action tableau, or (as the movie calls it) a Frame. The first one is actually a painting: Pieter Bruegel's "The Hunters in the Snow," from 1565, in which the chimneys of houses, after a while, emit plumes of smoke and one of the dogs of the hunters approaching a village breaks free and runs around and barks, finally peeing on a tree. It's funny (which Kiarostami very rarely was), but then "24 Frames" shifts into a staid portraits-of-wildlife mode that becomes a meditative trance-out.
The images the movie is based on are almost all photographs taken over the years by Kiarostami. Most of them are black and white, and a lot of them depict beaches or woodlands in the middle of winter, with a lot of snow falling and some sort of animal — birds, cows, wolves, deer, lions — in nearly every one. Kiarostami was a splendid photographer, and each image, in its way, is breathtaking, but very little happens in most of the segments. They're "narratives" spun out of thistledown. of A snowscape viewed through a half-open car window reveals a matching pair of dark horses who frolic and gambol, with old tango music playing on the car radio. The window of a bunker lets us spy on crows on the edge of a roadway, gathering to peck at bits of food, until a zooming motorcycle makes them flutter out of the way, and then they come back. In the middle of a blizzard, a group of goats press themselves, face forward in a packed circle, against a solitary tree.
You're charmed by some of these sequences, and your mind is free to wander during others (which may be the idea). At times, it's like watching the pastoral version of a James Benning film festival. At others, with all the starkly lovely imagery of trees in winter, "24 Frames" almost seems to be turning the aesthetic of Ansel Adams into a series of the world's most lyrical screen savers. At rare points, I confess I found myself questioning the very idea of the movie — bringing photographs to life — since the whole premise of photography as an art form might be summed up as "a picture is worth a thousand frames."
Yet Kiarostami isn't just making hypnotic images; he's communing with the audience (as he always did). There are a number of striking vistas of death: a member of a seagull flock gets shot out of the sky, and a fawn, after grazing in front of the entrance to a woods, is shot as well. Wolves, glimpsed from a distance, consume their prey, a panorama that's only rendered more stark by the Currier and Ives crest of snow they're on.
There are only two segments that have human beings in them, and you may wish that there were more. The first is a stunner, built around a photograph that remains a still photograph — of six elderly Muslim tourists, viewed from the back as they stand on a bridge looking at the Eiffel Tower. But even as their image remains frozen, pedestrians stroll behind them, ignoring them, as the Tower dances with light. It's like a miniature Muslim version of "Invisible Man."
And then there's that ending. It is utterly about endings, but also about eternity. (It's also about Iranian censorship laws, since it breaks three of them: a woman appears with her hair uncovered, a woman sings by herself, and a woman and a man kiss.) As a dark-haired girl lies asleep, looking almost dead with her head on the desk, we see a frozen image from an old Hollywood movie on her computer screen (so the cinema is gone), and that image depicts a couple staring into each other's eyes, and they start, very slowly, to kiss (so censorship is gone), and their love is alive, and the movie they're in is alive, and maybe the cinema, after all, is alive, and as for Abbas Kiarostami, I can only go back to that song by Andrew Lloyd Weber (with lyrics by Glenn Slater), which says, "Love never dies, love will continue,/Love keeps on beating, when you're gone."
"24 Frames" — 3.5 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2:00
Opens: Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., www.siskelfilmcenter.org. In Persian with English subtitles.