Apparently, the entirety of Iran is a giant gravel-pile construction site. That’s the impression given in this film, and considering how little I know of the country due to my own nation’s sanctions against it, I’m going to choose to assume that Iran is a beautiful country and Kiarostami made a stylistic and thematic choice to film most of this in locations where just about everything is dead and dying, and dry earth cascades on all sides in crumbling ruin.
Few thematic choices could fit better for a plot revolving around a man who wants to commit suicide and have someone bury him, or haul him out of his own grave if he fails to do a proper job of it. Godfrey Cheshire’s Criterion essay accompanying this film makes a point to discuss this film in terms of life and death, but I interpret it in slightly more general terms. I don’t think this is a story about man versus himself; I think it’s a film about man versus nature. Mr. Badii, for some unstated reason, feels disconnected with life. He tries, time and again, to get someone to show him some modicum of attention. Everyone he talks to is so busy living their lives, innocently in the case of the young soldier; studiously, in the case of the seminarist; and fully, in the case of the old man, that none of them can be bothered with Badii’s existential crisis.
A man doing whatever he can to get even the smallest part of the world to notice him, even through suicide, is a man full of pride and misguided. His crisis would not occur to someone fully engaged in living life, or to someone who knows their insignificance in the grand scheme of things. I’d argue that Kiarostami is making a distinction between living life with indifference to your insignificance and being unable to accept that fact and being filled with despair instead. This doesn’t sound particularly positive, but it is. At least as far as I’m concerned, engagement with life is much more positive than despair at living in the first place.