At one point in Amadeus, Mozart shocks Emperor Joseph II with a claim that he can sustain a simple opera scene for 20 minutes. As amazing as that is, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami outdoes Mozart more than four times over, maintaining interest in a single conceit with increasing intensity for eighty-three minutes in Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is the Friend's Home?). That he does so with untrained actors in an essentially barren landscape proves Kiarostami possesses amazing lyrical mastery of the film medium.
Opening with a long close-up of a plain bluish iron door with chattering eight-year-old children behind while the credits roll, Kiarostami prepares the way for a slowly-paced visual essay on Iranian life. Children and adult worlds contrast greatly in modern day Iran, as captured by Kiarostami's camera—the teacher, parents, and extended family all hold vastly different values from the young protagonist. The rigid teacher insists on his students doing their homework in notebooks, so their progress can be properly chronicled. Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh (Ahmed Ahmed Poor) bursts into tears when the teacher rips his single page homework page to threads and threatens to expel him if he doesn't bring his notebook to class the following day. Kiarostami's simple, but effectively placed camera shots builds palpable tension within the class, especially on the face of sympathetic Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor).
Imagine Ahmed's consternation when he comes home and discovers that he has mistakenly brought pitiful Nematzadeh's notebook with him. He wants to return the boy's notebook to him, but two major obstacles stand in the way: His friend lives in a unknown home in a neighboring village, and his mother forbids him to leave home. She insists that he maintain the daily routine of homework and taking care of necessary family business—rocking the baby and any other necessary errand.
When she demands that he go for bread, Ahmed realizes his chance and he sets off with his friend's notebook, determined to find his house in spite of not knowing exactly where to look and despite his observing grandfather's disapproval. Thus, internal tensions arise from the simple plot as Ahmed attempts to do the “right” thing against the wishes and expectations of the important adults in his life.
As with most Iranian films (and Kiarostami in particular), aspects of family life lyrically represent deeper issues—the more obvious ones here showing the contrast between modern values of eight-year old Ahmed and the traditional adult values and expectations of his teacher, mother, and grandfather. Each expects something different: The grandfather longs for the disciplined old days "when kids were brought up right," and the teacher wants all his students to work hard and achieve academic success before working for the family. With subtle humor, Kiarostami shows the mother in continual conflict with her expectations, as she vacillates between demanding that her son both focus on his homework and take care of routine family matters.
Those ideas lie behind the beautifully composed long shots of Amed doggedly zigzagging his way up the stark desert trail and through the somber greens of the olive grove to carry out his mission. Questioning villagers about his friend's residence forms a rhythmic pattern that poetically grows in intensity as the film proceeds. Selectively using Middle Eastern stringed instrumentation at certain key moments and using very few editing cuts, Kiarostami's camera remains in complete control throughout in creating a profoundly memorable portrait of rural life in modern Iran, and especially of the non-professional actors. This lends authenticity to his work—his long intimate takes require the actors to remain in character all the way.
Even though very little takes place, the eighty-three minutes seem to fly by in real time. Most of the journey lies within, allowing us an intimate view of the protagonist. Any audience staying with Where is the Friend's Home? to the end will feel like they know young Amed better than his own parents do, and they are likely to seek out more films from this most revered Iranian filmmaker.