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Asghar Farhadi makes great, great movies. Perhaps most obviously, they are eye-opening glimpses into a different culture. A front-runner in the Iranian New-Wave – a cinematic movement which has given us works like Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – his pictures help break down racial division. The characters he writes, although often deeply flawed, are so human and relatable that it’s impossible not to sympathise with them.
A few months ago, I finally sat down and watched A Separation – Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 drama which won a Best Foreign Language Oscar – and was completely floored by it. It’s near perfect – each character is fully developed and explored, it’s a family drama that unravels like a thriller, it feels real and visceral. The experience made me want to write about Farhadi and explore his other works.
However, while usually it would be wonderful seeing a director of his calibre being widely reported upon, Farhadi’s name has become symbolic of Donald Trump’s segregating policies. This is ironic given the Iranian director’s movies so far have been breaking the racial walls the President seems so fixed on erecting. With this said, let this piece not be a profile of a victim but a show of solidarity and a celebration of a great artist in the wake of the Irish Premiere of his latest work – the Oscar winning The Salesman – which premiered as part of ADIFF 2017 before its release on March 17th.
The Human Cinema of Asghar Farhadi
Fireworks Wednesday (2006)
Farhadi’s third film – and first breakthrough in regards to international critical acclaim – isn’t up to calibre of his latest and best work. Yet, it does show promise of his later genius. The drama focuses on the lives of three women in Iran – one engaged, one unhappily married and one divorced – over the course of Persian New Year’s Eve.
Although lacking the thriller element of his subsequent films and thus much of the urgency, Fireworks Wednesday does display Farhadi’s gift of following multiple characters – constantly swapping who the audience follow. Just as you think you understand an event, Farhadi switches to a different perspective – leaving the viewer to question their previous loyalties. The movie also establishes the director as someone who is socially conscious. Within the movie, he touches upon many themes which come to mark his later work, most notably the treatment of women as subservient to men in Iranian society.
While Asghar Farhadi isn’t a flashy filmmaker – preferring un-showy, intimate direction to enable the audience to feel closer to the characters – Fireworks Wednesday does feature a bravura set-piece. As a lead character drives through a New Year fireworks display, he evokes the sensation of being in a war-zone – smoke and sparks are prominent, explosions are heard in the distance. This metaphor for navigating relationships – comparing them to combat – speaks volumes in regards Farhadi’s view of human interaction as issues like trust, truth and perception loom large in his filmography.
About Elly (2009)
Farhadi’s fourth feature saw the auteur utilising a plot structure for the first time which comes to mark his later pictures. For the first half-hour, the film feels almost like neo-realism as the writer-director introduces the viewer to his characters, highlighting their personality traits and interactions in a very natural way. However, while this is happening, he subtly – to the extent that the audience isn’t even aware it’s happening – lays the groundwork for a tragedy. Suddenly, a destructive act occurs or is revealed and the characters – who we now know intimately – must deal with and debate the moral quandaries they find themselves in.
In About Elly, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani, so brilliant recently in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson), invites the titular character (Taraneh Alidoosti) to spend a weekend at a coastal villa with friends. The plan is to set Elly up with Ahmed (Shahab Hosseini, star of The Salesman), a kind, recently divorced man in search of a new wife. However, when Sepideh’s guest goes missing and is presumed dead, the gang of friends must get their stories straight when new revelations regarding Elly emerge.
As well as centring upon a thrilling Hitchcockian-esque mystery – something which is even more engaging because one relates to the characters at its core – About Elly probes interesting ideas. It dissects how people in moments of high stress often try to negate blame away from themselves. For example, Sepideh and her friends laugh and dance together without a care in the world during the opening stretch of the drama. Yet, the moment Elly goes missing, they are at each other’s throats, searching for someone to fault. As well as this, the film analyses masculine and feminine honour in Muslim society. Without spoiling, the tension during the finale of About Elly rests on a reveal regarding Elly’s personal life which would not be as big an issue had it occurred in Western society.
A Separation (2011)
Farhadi’s most critically acclaimed film to date – A Separation stars Peyman Maadi (also in About Elly, as well as HBO’s The Night Of) as Nader, a man going through a acrimonius divorce from his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), while also struggling to cope with his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young and devoutly religious woman to care for his dad while he is away. However, Razieh’s pregnancy and her hot-tempered husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) – who refuses to let her work for a man whose wife is not present – put a strain on her work. On discovering the poor care his employee has been giving his father, Nader takes action – the result of which has drastic consequences for all involved.
As skilful a blend of human drama and Hitchcockian thrills as About Elly, A Separation sees Farhadi using a tale of familial collapse to double-down on his exploration of Iran’s social ills. Issues highlighted include the country’s flawed legal system and the inflexibility of devout religious beliefs. I mentioned in my opening paragraph about the director’s filmography providing glimpses into another culture. There is no better example than the moment in A Separation, when Razieh feels compelled to phone a religious hotline to ask whether its sinful to change Nader’s father’s trousers after he wets himself.
However, perhaps the greatest skill of Asghar Farhadi is how these themes only become apparent after one’s watched the film because in the moment, A Separation is intense viewing. Like About Elly, the movie’s visceral power comes from the fact the writer-director is even-handed in regards character. Even with unlikeable people, Farhadi provides enough of an explanation for their actions to allow the viewer to empathise with them to some degree – thus creating real human drama.
The Past (2013)
Farhadi’s first film not in the Iranian language – The Past stars Berenice Bejo (Oscar-nominated for The Artist) as Marie – a woman who invites her estranged Iranian husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), back to France so that he can sign divorce papers. Upon arriving, the former lover discovers that Marie is engaged to another man, Samir (A Prophet’s Tahir Rahim), who is also still married. Samir’s wife, however, is in a coma and the reason may be related to his affair with Marie.
Arguably. The Past is Farhadi’s most classical film. For one thing, the budget for him to work with was clearly bigger. His same trademark intimate and tight cinematography – in which the camera is very close to the protagonists, putting the viewer in their head-space – is present. Yet, the look of the drama is notably more polished, most evident by a one-take shot where Samir is interrogating an employee as she works. The camera glides through the work-space as he questions her, retreats to consider what she has replied and then returns to her – in a scene right out of an Orson Welles movie.
Also, the fact that the film takes place in France – as opposed to Iran – frees the auteur from having to examine the distinct social customs of the movie’s environment. While before his characters were bound by lawful or religious restrictions, here they are trapped by events that already occurred. Farhadi uses a classical “sins of the past” narrative to explore the more human themes of his best work e.g. how truth is different for each person, how people can perceive the same event from a multitude of ways, how people always try to assign blame away from themselves. It’s these questions that elevate Farhadi’s work above that of many others. He clearly has a palpable interest in people and their stories and it’s this that establishes him as one of our most human filmmakers working today.
The Salesman is released in Irish cinemas on March 17th.
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