The leading face in contemporary Iranian cinema, director Abbas Kiarostami can hardly be accused of making accessible, obvious films. Nor does his wonderful 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us even count as his easiest work, though with its inexpressibly dry, absurdist sense of humor, it's possibly his most entertaining, given a flexible definition of "entertaining". It is, at any rate, perhaps the most prototypically Kiarostamian of all his films, with its inscrutably elliptical plot, gorgeous impressionistic photography, and politically-inflected depiction of a subset of Iranian society left in a curious crack between tradition and modernity. I should not speak out of turn, having seen only a taste of the director's work, but in nothing else I'm familiar do all of his concerns - which are therefore the concerns of all Iranian art cinema - come together in such a satisfying, complete whole.

This is what happens in the movie: an engineer (Behzad Dorani) from Tehran journeys to the teeny little village of Siah Dareh, untouched by the advances of the modern world, here defined as roughly the last 200 or 300 years. He brings with him a pair of assistants who we never see and whose work isn't really ever explained; nor is the engineer's presence clarified until late in the film, and even then it's only "clarified" in the sense that learning that Finnegans Wake is about a man dreaming of the course of one night "clarifies" it. We do know that the engineer has a particular interest in the fate of one sick old woman (we never see her either), and while his assistants hide in their room eating strawberries, he criss-crosses from one house to another, meeting the residents of the village and making a friend of a young boy.

Of course, anyone who left the movie with no further thoughts on it than those would certainly not be very happy about wasting two hours on a languid Iranian film with no plot. The pleasures of The Wind Will Carry Us are of a much different kind, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that only intellectually elitist pretentious assholes like myself could love the movie. Certainly, being an intellectually elitist pretentious asshole helps, especially in the film's arid "poetic symbolism" phase: the part of the movie where the engineer who may not be an engineer hangs around waiting for the old woman to die, only to grow frustrated as she gets better, forcing him and his crew to stay in the village in the middle of nowhere for weeks - weeks which are presented in the most elliptical fashion possible, so that when the engineer mentions that it's been two weeks since he's arrived, we're all like "Shit! I thought it was just one day!" and that's when we understand that we've arrived in Beckett Territory. This is the mode of the film in which the man goes to an underground cattle barn for some fresh milk, and in the almost absolute dark recites a poem for the young girl tending the cow, the poem by Iran's most important contemporary female writer, Forough Farrokhzad (herself no stranger to challenging and fascinating movies; she directed a profoundly unnerving documentary short titled The House Is Black in 1963, just a few years before her death); it is from this poem that the film derives its title. Or there's the scene where the frustrated engineer kicks over a tortoise that rights itself and keeps on walking as if nothing had happened. Et cetera.

Symbolism's not quite the right word here: or at least it doesn't feel exactly right. A Crusader playing chess with the incarnation of Death is a symbol. A young woman milking a cow in a pitch-dark cave certainly has its symbolic elements, particularly given Farrokhzad's political significance, but I'd say it feels less like a symbol than a poetic image. That is almost certainly a pointlessly narrow bit of parsing, but I think it's no accident that the film takes its cues from a very imagistic poem (which describes a lover's perception of a dark, windy night), given how the film itself is structured around poetic, rather than narrative lines: image follows image, and the meaning is intuitive but not necessarily so concrete that you feel comfortable saying it out loud, for fear of breaking it.

That, of course, is the mark of a Kiarostami film: the director has said (about this exact movie, in fact), that he only puts about half of the meaning in any given project, and that the rest is created in the head of the viewer. Which is convenient to the critic, since it absolves us of having to "solve" the film - half of what I take from The Wind Will Carry Us is entirely my own, and even if I could communicate that, you could never replicate it.

But anyway, I mentioned that there actually is a whole lot of film that works on an entirely other level than this talky ain't-I-smart business: it's a flat-out beautiful movie about a single place. Kiarostami didn't just come up with the village of Siah Dareh from his imagination, he actually took his cameras over there and filmed the very small community, seemingly untouched by time, and cast local residents in most of the background roles. Thus, The Wind Will Carry Us is as much a documentary as anything else, and an especially fascinating one at that. At the end of the day, it's the village that we've learned the most about, more than its residents and more than the alien interloper who comes along, and the cumulative details about life in Siah Dareh never cease to be amazing or amusing or both. Forgive the cliché, but it's a place out of time, where the engineer must drive to the top of a hill outside town in order to get cell phone reception, and where directions are given in relative terms (near the single big tree, above that wall behind the house with a blue roof), rather than absolute. Ultimately, it seems more like a mental state than anything else, and I imagine that the engineer, whoever he is, would tend to agree. Though nothing may happen in The Wind Will Carry Us such that you can really see it, it has a great deal to say about being human in those situations where it would be easiest just to be an neutral object. So much that the film threatens to overload its boundaries: like all Kiarostami films, it's a bit shaggy and messy by the end, with too many ideas stuffed into too little time, but if we're going to start calling that a flaw, then I don't really see why bother with art in the first place.