Out Of The Past

In films like A Separation and The Past, Asghar Farhadi has become Iran’s most celebrated cultural export. There’s a price.
by Gordon Campbell

As Tolstoy once famously observed, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but in Hollywood… family discord is depicted onscreen in very predictable ways. In films such as August : Osage County – and there are other recent examples – mainstream cinema tends to portray family life via star vehicles ( Meryl Streep! Julia Roberts!) that offer maximum scenery-chewing opportunities and nightmare Gothic revelations of alcoholism, domestic violence and worse. In the process, the cinema of human-scale family dynamics has all but vanished from sight. That fact alone makes the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi someone to treasure. In films such as A Separation and The Past, Farhadi depicts a recognisable struggle for trust and understanding between men and women, parents and children, families and the wider social rules. They are not kitchen sink exercises, either. In his hands, the ordinary stuff of family life becomes as engrossing as a political thriller.

Anyone who has seen the films mentioned will also attest to how culturally accessible they are. In one of his last reviews, the late American film critic Roger Ebert made the point that with Farhadi, the cultural and political barriers that one might expect to encounter with an Iranian director simply do not exist:

While “A Separation,” which depicted a couple splitting up because the wife wanted to escape Iran, was viewed as a critique of current conditions in his native land, Farhadi seems to have little interest in politics or the kinds of cultural analyses offered in what he has called “films that try to explain Iran to the world.” The one country that really seems to interest him is the human heart.

Of the three main adult characters in “The Past,” one is Iranian, one French and one Arab. While it wouldn’t be accurate to that these cultural identities are entirely unimportant—Farhadi wants to register the flux of nationalities in our increasingly globalized world—they are not the film’s main subject, any more than conditions in Iran were in “A Separation.” This time the borders that concern him most are those separating past, present and future, and the film’s title accurately pinpoints the area that threatens to dominate and de-stabilize the other two.

Put simply, The Past is about the difficulty of understanding the causes and the repercussions of our past actions on the people we love the most. It is a mysterious process because the motives involved are never entirely clear, and the after-effects are never-ending. Four years after breaking up with his wife Marie (played by Berenice Bejo, from The Artist) Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris to co-sign the official papers that will finalize their divorce. Marie’s current household includes her two children from an earlier marriage. Both of them – and especially Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie – still love Ahmad, their stepdad. At the same time, Lucie feels estranged from her mother and is actively hostile to Samir, the man that Marie now plans to marry. (Samir is played by Tahar Rahim, the excellent actor last seen in A Prophet.)

Meanwhile, both Marie and Lucie have to cope with Samir’s emotionally volatile small son Fouad, who is now living with the family in their ramshackle suburban home while Samir works at a laundry in the city. As the outsider and would-be peacemaker amidst a family turmoil that his own past actions have helped to create, Ahmad uncovers a further aspect of the family’s situation almost by chance; for months, Samir’s wife has been lying in a coma in hospital, after trying to commit suicide.

On paper, that set-up probably looks as melodramatic as anything in August : Osage County. Yet the film works differently, via what has become Farhadi’s signature style. Firstly, and as with A Separation, we are drip-fed small details that continually alter our understanding of what has happened to this family. The story unfolds like a whodunnit, as the narrative focus shifts from Ahmad to Lucie/Marie and finally to Samir, and the audience keeps on discovering deeper and deeper dimensions of the people on screen at pretty much the same pace as they realise it themselves. This is a difficult task for any scriptwriter to pull off, and Farhadi has now managed it superlatively, twice.

Strikingly, there are no “good” or “bad” characters in his films. In The Past, the three adults and three children are shown in all their complexities, as they try to deal with doubt, uncertainty and their residues of guilt and affection. What has happened to this or that person, and what are these people concealing either inadvertedly, or through guilt, or for the best reasons they can muster ? As Farhadi says, he tries not to write characters in black and white terms, and he carries that intention over into the casting as well:

I try not to think of a particular actor as I write. There are two important factors when I cast: I’ve never written a negative character in any of my films; all of them are partially right, and I want the audience to connect with, and like, all of them. So I try to choose actors that, when you see his or her face, you feel sympathetic towards them. And then because these characters are multifaceted, I need intelligent actors to bring out all of these layers.

As a result, what’s up on screen feels immediate, and convincing. The past intimacy between Ahmad and Marie for instance, is visible even in the body language between them : in their casual scenes in the kitchen, just as much as when they argue. “Miss our fights, darling?’ says Ahmad at one point, through clenched teeth. From the outset, Farhadi has these subtleties firmly in mind:

I think one [source] of the malaise of today’s cinema is over explaining, so that there is nothing left for the audience to do — they are just receiving and consuming data. But I gradually realized that the enjoyment for the viewer is discovering what is being unsaid. Some filmmakers are afraid of this. They think that if they don’t give too much information the viewer will be lost and unable to follow the story. To me it’s the opposite. What is important to me is that you give information in minute details. If you want to show the relationship between a man and a woman, one way is to put them in bed having sex. Another way is to show this is in subtle, indirect, and implicit ways — for instance, Marie putting eye drops in Samir’s eyes.

For the obvious political and socio-religious reasons, it may seem strange that some of the most vital and accessible films of the past 15 to 20 years have come from Iran, better known as a repressive theocracy. Little of the country’s artistic and cultural wealth, spanning centuries, is known in the West. Iran’s major contributions to the French New Wave of the 1960s are also little recognised. Since then, the growth of its own cinema industry hasn’t been an easy or a straightforward process. Some of the best Iranian directors ( Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf) now work in exile overseas. Other celebrated figures, such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof work, if at all, under extraordinarily difficult conditions of house arrest and official bans, and under the shadow of imminent imprisonment.

On top of all that, the sanctions against Iran and the parlous state of its economy have left scant funds available for making the kind of art films that get applauded abroad, but which are rarely popular with audiences at home. In general terms, the golden decade of Iran’s first “ New Wave” of arthouse cinema – from the mid 1990s until the mid 2000s – happened to co-incide with the relatively liberal reformist regime of President Mohammed Khatami. Years before, Khatami had also been a key figure in his appointment as Minister of Culture, where he had overseen the revitalisation of Iranian film-making after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Blessed by Ayotollah Khomeini as a tool of education and moral instruction, cinema became one of several creative sectors in Iran where artists tacitly observed the rules of the jurists, while stretching and subverting them in almost every way imaginable.

This tension between a moralistic, paranoid regime and the creative attempts by its artists to bypass the official strictures is not a unique situation. In the US, film noir flourished in similar fashion in the 1940s and 1950s under the shadow of tough censorship rules and political witch-hunts. Ultimately, the modern “New Wave” of Iranian film-making was put on the world map when Kiarostami’s film A Touch of Cherry won the Palme D’Or in Cannes in 1997. Later, the acclaim that his film Certified Copy earned at Cannes in 2010 provided a platform for its star Juliette Binche to mount a memorable protest against the persecution of Jafar Panahi.

So far, Farhadi has managed to stay onside with the authorities. At 42, he is of a different generation than Kiarostami ( who is now 73) and is younger even than Kiarostami’s protege Panahi, now 53. Farhadi’s work has been celebrated by the Iranian regime and he has received official awards, including several for A Separation. In 2012, Farhadi, his gifted cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari and three of his actors were allowed to travel to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Award ceremony that crowned A Separation as Best Foreign Film – the first time an Iranian film has won an Oscar – but the authorities then abruptly cancelled a ceremony in Teheran planned to celebrate Farhadi’s achievement.

The reasons for the about-face remain murky. True, during his Oscar acceptance speech, Farhadi had lamented how the global understanding of Iran’s rich cultural heritage is currently “hidden under the heavy dust of politics.“ Yet it would take a giant stretch to read this as being in any way a defence of Panahi. Perhaps the authorities took exception to a possible allegorical dimension of the film’s plot. In A Separation, Simin the wife seeks a divorce in order to leave Iran, and to go and live in America. Nader the husband opposes her plan, since he wants to stay behind and look after his sickly father. When one remembers that Farhadi has spoken of women as the agents of change and as having an orientation to the future – while men are the bearers of tradition – the allegorical connotations of the plot could perhaps explain the sudden dimming of official enthusiasm. Even so, Farhadi was later allowed to travel to Paris, where The Past was shot. He still lives in Iran, and has said he feels no desire to emigrate.

Farhadi has his critics – at home and abroad – for the way he’s walked the line between artistic integrity, popular appeal, and keeping the censors at bay. (In his own defence, Farhadi has said he would make the same films, regardless of whether his life was at stake, or not.) That aside Farhadi’s work undeniably shares elements in common with the mainstream Iranian movies into which – inexplicably – the government in Teheran still chooses to pour a relatively large amount of production money.

These so-called “ main-body” movies are popular, sexually titillating but politically neutered films. Ironically, what they most closely resemble are the classic mainstream Hollywood dramas of the mid 1930s to the mid 1970s. Farhadi has one lucrative foot in that camp. By focussing on the relationship problems of the urban middle class, he’s not only earned a wider audience – and better results at the domestic box office – than some of his peers, but has not (yet) run afoul of the religious censors. Unlike some of his arthouse peers, Farhadi is therefore not restricted to making meagre box office returns from a relatively tiny audience drawn from the educated cultural elite in Teheran.

His critics don’t find any comfort in his success . This article for instance is dismissive of the class politics in A Separation, and treats the success of Farhadi as symptomatic of an alleged retreat from daring and experimentation in Iranian cinema over the past five years. Yet even then, as the same article concedes, the alternatives are pretty grim to consider. Panahi for instance, has chosen to defy the censors who put him under house arrest (and who have banned him from film-making for 20 years) by documenting his confinement, and smuggling it out of Iran on a USB hidden in a birthday cake. A brave, but perilous route of action :

The other great exception [besides Abbas Kiorastami] is Jafar Panahi, who continues to make movies under the constant threat of imprisonment and worse. Based directly on his extraordinary circumstances, This Is Not a Film (2011) is raw, bare, uncompromising. Panahi is a better filmmaker now than he ever was, but his is not a life to recommend to anyone.

Whatever his armchair critics may think of him, Farhadi can hardly be blamed for not seeking the same fate. So far, his films have been good enough to justify the choices he’s made.