The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 4

After the Rain

by Abbas Kiarostami

After The Rain

[Translated by Dorna Khazeni]


My friend is knowledgeable in all subjects. His field is architecture but he doesn’t work as an architect. Mostly, he reads and writes. Of course no one’s ever seen anything he’s written. He says he just writes for himself. He makes money by drafting at architects’ offices from time to time, but only works enough to make ends meet. In his eyes the world’s phenomena fall into one of two categories: things he likes and those he dislikes.
          Cinema is among the things he adores. But only Hollywood's cinema. He is an ardent fan of Hollywood, and non—Hollywood films mean nothing to him. He always goes to see American movies and encourages me to see them too. Sometimes he also encourages me to make such films. He says he doesn’t like my films and that’s why he doesn’t go to see them. He says, “I prefer your friendship to your films.” He thinks I am not as tiresome as my films. The last time he went to see one of my films he didn’t last till the end. He fell asleep somewhere in the middle. He says so himself and doesn’t hide it. He doesn’t like films that put him to sleep and believes a bed to be a more suitable place for sleeping than a seat in a movie theater. As I said, his yardstick is Hollywood's cinema, and nothing else is legitimate in his eyes. He says that just as hearing the word museum immediately makes one think of the Louvre, the word cinema makes one think of Hollywood. Of course he says this only when anti-Hollywood types pressure him. Otherwise, the real truth is that he knows no other cinema. His devotion to Hollywood is so great that he likes even those films that imitate American cinema. This is why he insisted on taking me to see such a film. He more or less forced me to go. Of course his alleged benevolent intention was, “If a Frenchman can make an American film, why can’t you? Making films for a couple of small movie theaters is like sprouting a plate of grains when others are harvesting whole fields and acres and acres of land.”
          I don’t refute what he says. I truly cannot argue. All the same, neither can I make his kind of film nor is this thing he has dragged me to see what I consider to be a film. By the third scene I have it figured out. It’s another of those popular stories with a second-rate hero and a dash of compassion thrown in for good measure. The homicidal protagonist always has a houseplant that he cares for conscientiously. Right before taking aim and shooting someone in the chest, he waters his plant and places it outside a window. Once this considerate mission is through, he is able to teach the art of killing. Here, he instructs a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girl. The girl doesn’t let her teacher down and proceeds to bloody the dazzlingly white sweatshirt worn by a limousine-riding fellow. The image of the girl’s childish finger pressing the trigger displeases me. I want to leave the movie theater. The pleasure I see in my friend’s face stops me. But, I don’t mean to place all the blame on his enjoyment of the film. The truth is, I myself am curious to see what the filmmaker will end up doing with the plant. How he will convey a loving message to his naïve spectators. Events move at a clip with nary a concern for geographic continuity—which is strange, as this is often the strong suit of such films. Somewhere there’s a lone man. Some place else there is a group of gun-wielding thugs. The only thing that links these events is that they are mounted consecutively on the same reel of film. I think to myself, “The truth is, if a Frenchman knows how to make an American type of film, that just goes to prove that I can’t.” I can’t watch the rest of the film and, protesting, leave the theater. My friend is complaining. “Do you mean to say all those people glued to their seats in there are wrong, and that you alone know what’s good?” He then cites the film’s colossal sales figures, even in the United States.
          It’s raining outside and the roar of thunder and the sky’s scattered clouds cover the Piazzale Michelangelo. The sound of church bells and the sound of thunder merge with my disgruntled, indignant friend’s voice. “If this wasn’t a good film, I suppose your films are good? The mere ticket price to one of your films is worth several times more than the film’s screenplay.”
          When he gets angry his humor really shows. I remind him I am his guest and he relents a little. Especially after I point out that I will be in Florence for only twenty-four hours and that although I may still have the good fortune to see the film elsewhere, I won’t be able to see Florence again in the company of such an erudite friend.
          He surrenders. To change the subject I ask about the bridge to the left of the Piazzale. From afar I see tourists wearing colorful clothes and carrying umbrellas. Walking in the rain is hard without an umbrella, but my friend is raring to go. He wants to tell me about the bridge in great detail. To do so we must be standing on the bridge itself. Although he knows I don’t enjoy walking in the rain, he insists that we go via the Vasari Corridor. The Corridor is roofed but the rain whips in from the sides and wind gusts break a couple of umbrellas. But it’s as though my friend doesn’t feel the wind or the rain. He begins his account while we’re in the Corridor. He tells me it was built at the command of the Duke of Florence, Cosimo the Elder. The Duke had given Vasari, the famous Florentine artist, permission to build a passageway and to eliminate all obstacles standing in his way. This had included a portion of the Santa Felicita Cathedral. However, when Vasari reached the Manelli Tower, that family would allow neither passage through the Tower nor permission to tear it down. This, in spite of the fact that Cosimo had the power to disregard their wishes and impose his own will. But in consideration of the many services this respectable family had performed for the city of Florence , he honored their wishes. I become curious, of course, having no idea what were the aforementioned services. Nonetheless, I decide to let this pass as the rain is beating down on our heads and faces far too hard. We are the only ones walking slowly. Everyone else runs past us to reach the shelter of the bridge. But whenever my friend explains anything he walks slowly and when he wants to emphasize a point he actually stands still, not noticing that it’s raining at all. In the end, Vasari conceived of using huge stone pillars. This allowed the passageway to take a different path from the one leading to the Manelli Tower .
          From the Vasari Corridor, not without difficulty, we reach the shelter of the bridge. We stand amid a group of defenseless tourists. Most of them are American. They stand in a row wearing their colorful gear, holding umbrellas. Next to us a caricaturist sits on his stool. Above his head, hanging from a column, are a few black charcoal drawings. They are of Karl Marx, Marilyn Monroe, and Brigitte Bardot. They are probably samples of his work aimed at a future, somewhat unsophisticated customer. His own features are not dissimilar to those depicted in his works. He has very thin lips, a rather large nose, and he wears a small red beret. As I look at him I realize he is absorbed by something else. With rapt attention he watches a young man who is talking to a young American woman. The young man leans against a pillar. Tall as he is, with well-turned arms and short curly hair, he looks like an ancient Roman statue. He speaks in broken English to the girl, who leans against the brick wall across from him. He speaks of matters of the heart. From where I stand I can’t see either of their faces. I am curious to see them but there is no room to move. On my right the painter stares at the young Florentine man and on my left my erudite friend delivers his detailed account of the bridge and its history.
          This bridge was built of wood circa 974 a.d., in the Middle Ages. It collapsed after a flood. He emphasizes “Middle Ages” as if I might imagine the bridge was built, say, twenty years ago. It was reinforced in 1114 a.d. to better withstand the river’s pressure. But in 1324, following another flood, it was devastated. Then again, in 1334, it succumbed to a flood. The bridge we stand on now was built ten years later in 1344. It too underwent considerable damage from a flood in 1964. The young woman stands with her back to the pink tape that designates the restored portion of the bridge. She wears a white lacy dress and white sneakers. The young man’s pants and shoes, although not exactly new, are elegant. He looks as handsome as a peacock fanning its tail.
          American tourists don’t know any better. They go to see Michelangelo and da Vinci’s works. But look at me, he seems to say, I am more beautiful and I am here alive in flesh and blood. But the girl does not look at him. From where I stand I can’t see her face, but from her stance it is clear that she is looking in the opposite direction to where a row of butcher shops used to be. These shops were known as the Beccai, a word that in Italian means “goatcatcher.” But in the sixteenth century during the rule of the Medici family, at the command of Cosimo the Elder, first the butcher shops and then the small 2X2 shops that stand along the north side of the bridge in a row, were turned over to goldsmiths. Today rich tourists the world over come here to buy the masterpieces of the Ponte Vecchio goldsmiths.
          While I lend an ear to my friend and guide, I continue to watch the young Florentine man. The young woman hears the young man’s words but looks toward the goldsmiths across the way and at the men and women who stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the dazzling shop windows. There is no one inside. The owners stand alone watching the rain and the customers who aren’t shopping. Their bearing resembles one another’s. Each is unaware that the shopkeeper next door stands in exactly the same spot in his store, his hands intertwined behind him, feet joined, rocking back on his heels a little, staring out into space like a statue, at the customers and at the rain that continues to pour down. No one speaks to anyone else. Perhaps everyone other than me knows the history of this bridge and of its devastation. I am to be the only beneficiary of the tale, told to me without pause. The roar of the river as it runs below us is fierce. Its level appears to have risen by at least fifty centimeters since we first came to stand on the bridge. I try to figure out if there’s a pattern to the bridge’s collapses by recalling the dates my friend has mentioned in his ceaseless narrative. From 1324 to 1344 is twenty years and then again from ’44 to ’64 is another twenty years. The next flood occurred in 1964; that would make it six hundred and twenty years, or is it six hundred years? I really can’t do the math. I realize all I know is that the far-righthand numeral in each of the years the bridge collapsed was a 4. We are now in 1994. It’s been exactly thirty years since the last collapse. All right. This proves nothing at all. Other than that everything may well be destroyed by a flood. Tourists, residents, and goldsmiths too. This has nothing to do with a recurring far-righthand numeral. I can see before my eyes that sheets of rain are coming down and truthfully I am a little afraid. But the appearance of a large group of Japanese tourists is reassuring. A contingent walks across the bridge in tidy formation. They all wear windproof plastic protective gear and are equipped with special hats. Their faces are evenly rain-drenched as they attentively listen to their guide, who is recounting the bridge’s history. Their advance, dressed as they are in colorful clothes, walking along in the rain through the crowd that stands on either side of the bridge, resembles the passage of a carnival float. This buoys me. Especially because the calm I see reflected in each of their faces imparts to me that their guide has made no mention of the bridge’s destruction in 1964. Perhaps on that day too things began this simply. Someone may have been relating the bridge’s history to someone else. There would have been a painter with his pictures, goldsmiths, customers, tourists, rain, wind. And amid the chaos, a young man hoping to secure his part of eternity.
          The river appears to be swelling, I think. I look at the water level, which has risen to only a few inches below the bridge. I want to suggest to my erudite friend that we leave the bridge. But given his munificent nature, he would never agree to step off this bridge before imparting to me every single thing he knows about its history. Furthermore, I’m afraid such a suggestion might remind him of the movie theater and again sour his mood. Also, I’m curious about the outcome of the young Florentine man’s endeavors. He is hewing the rock of the beloved with words as his only tools. Just like Vasari, the Florentine artist, he is trying to remove every impediment that might stand in his way, and when he reaches impassable obstacles such as the Manelli Tower , he offers up his youth and his beauty, evidently his only treasures. His white T-shirt sticks to his body and his curly hair gleams with rain.
          I look around. Other than the young man speaking in the girl’s ear and my knowledgeable friend speaking into mine, no one says a word. Now the tourists too have turned their backs on the goldsmiths’ shop windows and stare straight ahead. The goldsmiths stand still in their doorways and look fixedly outward. The rain blusters under the roof and I think I feel the bridge collapsing under me. Nonetheless, neither my friend nor the young man ceases talking. Not for a single moment. Water streams down from the tip of the painter’s nose. His eyes remain set on the young man. Drops of rain dribble off the rim of a large hat worn by a man standing behind me and drip directly down my neck. There is no room to move. The clouds roar at one another and my friend snarls at the rain. For the first time I realize that he is aware of the rain. However, his objection is that its sheer volume will prevent him from showing me the Palazzo Vecchio, an older building that stands out architecturally from the other Renaissance structures. During the Fascist era, both Hitler and Mussolini spoke from its balcony. Today it is the Town Hall and houses the Public Records Office. This is where couples who do not want an official church wedding go to be married. The mayor or another appropriate incumbent writes up a contract that the parties sign. This is what I hear in my left ear. In my right ear I can hear the young man’s words as he officially proposes marriage to the young woman. He is extolling the virtues of a simple life. He is singing the praises of a little attic bedroom that faces the hill and the Church of San Miniato and of pigeons that nest behind the bedroom window. He tells her how he has watched the male and female birds share the burden equally as they carried tiny twigs and placed them outside the window, one on top of the other. How the one which he then realized must be the female sat on the egg and how they took turns keeping the egg warm until it hatched. How they protected their chick from the mean black cat in the house next door and taught it to fly. And how the three of them flew away and new pigeons arrived at exactly the same spot and mended the nest with new twigs. The girl is so indifferent that I wonder if she perhaps doesn’t speak the young man’s language. She stares persistently at two spots, either at the handle of her umbrella whose button she keeps clicking or at the sky that grows darker and darker with each passing moment. The young man is delivering an approximate report of his income. He points to the painter and says that they work together and that the painter is a deaf-mute who has an art-framing store. He tells her that apart from the painter he has numerous other friends and coworkers who will all help them. I look again at the painter and see that his eyes are glued to the young man’s lips. The girl remains silent and fiddles with her umbrella handle. I wonder if she too is a mute and the young man doesn’t know it. No matter. He does not receive a reply.
          Now my friend is telling me about rich Italian families of a bygone age. About the Medici, the Pitti, the Strozzi, and the Rucellai. The most powerful of these were the Medici. The members of this family were patrons of the arts. It is during their rule that artists such as da Vinci and Michelangelo flourished. The young man again compares himself to the works of Michelangelo. He is proud of his figure and his bearing. I’ve had many proposals for modeling, he explains, but I don’t like that kind of work. Clothes are to cover flaws. Why would I hide my body? Of course in Rome there was a time when I was a painters’ and artists’ model. But I didn’t like that either. I don’t like young men and women to surround me and stare at me. A persistent gaze directed at a body wounds it. This is why I stopped doing that work. But I would like it . . . I would like it if you would look at me at length. Look with a different gaze. Look at me with appraising eyes. If what you see pleases you, then we will be married. A simple marriage at the Florence Town Hall . Afterward we’ll have a little dinner at the small house where the door of the main room opens into a bedroom just large enough to hold a bed. We’ll have dinner on the balcony right next to the birds. We’ll eat a dinner that I’ll cook myself. We’ll have ribollita, that special Italian soup with grilled meats, a Florentine specialty. I am sure you’ll like it. If you decide you don’t like Florence and don’t want to live here, I will go with you even though I love my country and my Florence .
          A Florence that is being washed away by the rain. The wind blowing across the river’s surface scatters tiny drops of water in every direction. On the left the river laps against one of the columns and the water starts to flow onto the bridge. The wind ravishes a few colored umbrellas from their owners’ hands and throws them into the river. Things appear to be escalating. This is underscored by the goldsmiths’ judiciously timed decision to remove their goods from the windows. Calmly and once again in well-coordinated movements, from left to right, one by one, they lay their gold inside safes. They appear confident in the knowledge that their rightful heirs will be able to retrieve the safes from the depths of the river. They probably have their names engraved on each safe for easy identification. The tourists aren’t moving. They stand as still as the stone statues in the piazzas. The wind snatches several more umbrellas away from inattentive owners and sends them hurtling skyward. The picture of Marilyn is ripped from the opposite column and flies toward the Piazza Vecchio and the Florence Town Hall . Marx’s picture follows it, while Brigitte Bardot’s picture stays firmly put. Chaos reigns. Now people are murmuring something to themselves or to each other. The young Florentine man is silent and is staring intently at the young woman. It is as if he has spoken his last word and now is waiting for her answer. Even my erudite friend has for once stopped talking! The girl stares up at the sky, at the rainbow rising from beneath the balcony of the Piazza Vecchio, its other end standing in the Piazzale Michelangelo, exactly above the movie theater. A large opening appears in the black cloud cover and lets the blue sky through. This is what the girl is staring at. The opening grows quickly. It gets bigger and bigger at an unbelievable rate.
          Everyone’s looking up. The rain ceases slowly and the wind with amazing speed scatters the clouds every which way. The sun, a few moments before setting, flings its orange light on the city of Florence. The tourists disperse much like the clouds, each going in a different direction. The girl walks carefully as she crosses the streams that run along the street. Water drips from small Christmas trees decorated with lemons and colored lights that stand between the bridge’s pillars. The girl opens her umbrella. She glances at the young man and with nothing but a cold smile takes her leave. I am able to see her face close up. It’s a broken, pale face with blue eyes. Its lines evoke a bygone nobility. The painter is still watching the young man, who stands rooted to the same spot all by himself. The painter moves the corner of his lips and, pulling his nose as far up as it will go, attempts to convey that she wasn’t much of a catch after all. But the young man looks pale and unhappy. His downcast eyes follow the woman’s steps across the water running over the cobblestones. A few oranges, small and large, are floating along in the water. I remember the words attributed to the great man of Italian cinema, Zavattini, and I wonder if he may have been a Florentine. He is reputed to have said, “The first passer walking by you can easily be the hero of your film.”

We walk past the movie theater in the Piazzale Michelangelo. The film has ended. The expressions of those walking out of the movie theater remind me of people leaving a funeral. I want to ask one of them what finally happened to the plant.

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