Taste of Cherry, co-winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Festival, is a great but demanding art film reminiscent of the days when cerebral works by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni were a common sight in U.S. specialty houses. The latest feature from acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is almost unbearably intimate in its depiction of the desperate quest of a prosperous middle-aged man to find someone willing to bury his body after a planned suicide. Over the course of the film, the world-weary Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) encounters a cross-section of men representing both Iran's mix of cultures and an assortment of responses to his solemn appeal. The style is understated, the mise-en-sc'ne is spare, but Kiarostami's complex morality tale catches you in its mesmerizing spell.

With no expositional preliminaries, the film begins with Badii cruising in his Range Rover, delicately approaching strangers who look like they might be persuaded to honor his radical request (for a generous fee). Badii's plan is to lie beneath a tree and take an overdose of sleeping pills; it's the volunteer's job to cover up his corpse if he succeeds, or rescue him if he fails. The first serious candidate, a poor young soldier from Kurdistan, runs off in fright once Badii makes his intentions clear. Next, Badii encounters an Afghan refugee working as a security guard in a desolate outpost, and his friend, an Afghan seminarian. Riding through the sun-baked landscape, the seminarian warns that suicide is forbidden by Islamic law; Badii responds that he doesn't need to hear religious sermons from a mere student. The final (and longest) encounter is with an elderly Turkish taxidermist who, ironically, is the one person who gives us hope that Badii may be coerced to change his mind and choose life. The Turk agrees to do the deed because he needs the money for a sick child but, during their ride, he tells Badii of his own attempted suicide and how a sudden appreciation for a simple mulberry saved his life. As the Range Rover approaches town, the scenery becomes less barren and more welcoming, and a subsequent series of shots (from Badii's point of view) of children playing, a cat and a sunset hint either that Badii is making a point of enjoying his last moments of life, or having second thoughts.

For much of its running time, Taste of Cherry's visual interest lay in its intriguing long shots of Iranian topography, or the dry expanses rushing past Badii's car window. Once the fateful night arrives, Kiarostami asserts his filmmaking mastery: The feeling of loneliness as Badii leaves his drab apartment building is palpable, and the searchlights of the taxi carrying the man to his (perhaps) final destination, seen in distant longshot, make an unforgettably eerie image. As Badii lies on the ground, a lightning storm breaks out; we see his tortured face in closeup and the screen goes to black. Then, in a Brechtian stroke that has stirred debate, Kiarostami cuts to murky video footage of lead actor Ershadi and the crew making this very film. The director has said he wanted to spare the audience the pain of watching Badii die; those of us who remain optimistic can choose to believe he didn't go through with it.

Part of the fascination of Taste of Cherry is in its ellipses. We're not given much information about Badii and why he has come to this crisis in his life, though Ershadi's gravely dignified and intelligent presence tends to speak volumes, and our knowledge-amplified by the ethnic minorities in the supporting cast-of Iran's turbulent history and present-day struggles also help explain a thinking man's suicide wish. Taste of Cherry lets you savor images and thoughts long after it ends-a movie experience that's become increasingly rare in these parched cinema days.

--Kevin Lally