With a mere six films to his name, all of which were made during the last ten years, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has become one of the most celebrated writer/directors in the world. His last three films About Elly, A Separation and The Past collected dozens of awards in film festivals and last year he was included among the 100 Most Influential People in the World according to Time Magazine. All of his films are intimate dramas that unravel like Dostoyevskian treatises on ethics and moral relativity, yet there is a warmth to them that allows audiences to connect with his characters in ways we almost never can with Ingmar Bergman for example.
In 2011, he became the first Iranian filmmaker to lead his country to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for A Separation, which also earned him a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Not one to rest on his laurels, he came back this year with The Past, a moody piece in which he explores the concepts of guilt and forgiveness. The film begins with Ahmad’s (Ali Mosaffa) return to France where he will finalize his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Béjo) allowing her to remarry Samir (Tahar Rahim). During his stay Ahmad discovers tensions between Marie and her teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and when the mother begs him to intercede, Ahmad encounters secrets that might change their lives forever.
This time around, Farhadi returns to the humanism of A Separation but infuses it with graceful notes of pure melodrama that throw his characters into emotional whirlwinds from which they might not come out unscathed. Featuring terrific performances (Béjo won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival) and one of the most thought provoking finales of the year, The Past shows Farhadi at the height of his powers. As The Past opens stateside (where it has already won the National Board of Review’s award for Best Foreign Film and is now also in the running for a Golden Globe), we talked to the Iranian filmmaker about working with children, making character changes when actors unexpectedly drop out and his penchant for cars.
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Your films and screenplays always open with an eye-catching image. In The Past we have the airport sequence with the glass and the actors, in A Separation there’s the copy machine and in About Elly we have the mysterious shot in the car. Can you talk about the images or ideas that trigger your projects? What made you want to write The Past for example?
Sometimes it is the images that take me to begin a script, that was the instance in A Separation and other times it can be a memory, in The Past for example it was a memory told to me by a friend. This was a memory my friend told me years ago and it stayed with me since.
I saw The Past as a sequel of sorts to A Separation. The last one ended with the protagonists divided by a glass ignoring each other, this one begins the same way only this time the characters are trying to communicate. We also have a character who left Iran to go abroad but ended up returning after his marriage ended. Can you talk about the relation between both films?
At the end of A Separation two people get separated and you can see this in the image but in The Past you see the continuation of a separation that has already happened. I don’t want to say that this is a sequel or a continuation to A Separation, if someone hasn’t seen A Separation, they can still follow The Past. But if you look at them together you can find more inner layers.
Did you make any changes to the character of Marie after you had to replace Marion Cotillard with Bérénice Béjo?
When Bérénice came the character itself didn’t really change but there were some alterations in the details. For instance before Bérénice, the character was completely French; when she came the character became someone who was raised in France but perhaps was not born in France. This you could tell from the way she decorated her house or the way she behaved.
Your last two films have essentially been about children, teenagers or pre-teens dealing with life changing secrets or having to take adult decisions. Can you elaborate on how you get to this place when you’re writing?
Children were present in my previous films and as I progressed children became older as well, right now certain part of my films are written for children. Children open a gate in my films that is a very honest window and it allows the audience to look at the adults in a more honest way. Children are in fact my favorite characters in these stories, and my wish is that the adults would be more like the children. Usually in my films children come out of that initial innocence and it seems like they have grown up, but this growing up is not in a positive way. For instance in this film we see how the adults are training children to apologize and this way of apology is bringing them out of that honest world and instead is teaching them responsibility. So when you start feeling responsible about a certain thing you’re going to count on your behavior, you will weigh your behavior, so your original response won’t be as honest.
I was blown away by the work of little Elyes Aguis who plays Tahar Rahim’s five year old son. Their scene in the train station was riveting and made me wonder how an actor so young can convey such strong emotions. Can you talk about how you prepare the children actors for their scenes?
Working with children is very different than working with the adults, you should also rehearse with them and rehearse a lot, but rehearsals with children are different. You can’t really tell them directly what you want and what you want them to play. For children you have to plan tricks in advance and then the reaction they have to those tricks is their acting.
You probably have realized by now that every time Americans consume Middle Eastern media they will automatically grant it a political subtext. How do you feel about critics and journalists finding political subtext in every film coming out of Iran?
In order to have a political interpretation of a certain work you have to have a lot of knowledge about the certain country, you can’t just base your knowledge on a certain work you’re viewing at a certain moment. I’m sure that the Iranian audience has a better political understanding of my work, because the Iranian audience has a lot of information about the background of Iran and with very small references they can open themselves to a more complex meaning. But the non-Iranian audience, their knowledge has been fed to them through the media and is usually unclear and distorted. They’re trying to make sense about everything based on incorrect information and another thing is that some of the Iranian filmmakers—not all of them—bring their films outside Iran and even if that film itself is not political the directors pretend that it is and this is a way for them to get known and get attention and this is a method I don’t like.
Your films are usually straightforward dramas about people, however they are always compared to thrillers. Have you ever given thought to making a flat out genre movie?
(smiles) When I was a student in college I used to write these little detective plays and I used to read a lot of detective works and I liked them and still do. There is a common theme among all the detective movies all over the world, there are a lot of stupid detective movies made but the good thing about them is that they make the spectator think all the time. The audience is not just receiving information or being just a viewer, they’re also trying to think how to solve this puzzle…
Which takes me to my next question…unlike those detective stories at the beginning of The Past we have a tiny incident with the car that pretty much sums up the final message which is “looking back is both important and dangerous”. Your films rarely have pretty tied up conclusions. Do they sum up your worldviews or are they invitations for viewers to think and reflect on their lives? Do you know how your stories end?
It’s both, when I’m writing I know what kind of an ending I’m going to have. I don’t know what ending, I know what kind. If we think of these films as detective films—that someone is the criminal and we have to find that person—in detective movies the case has a resolution and the puzzle is solved and the criminal is found and arrested. But in the kinds of films that I make, they are semi-detective films you can say, you can’t really find a person to arrest. You can blame everyone as the criminal and you can arrest everyone and at the same time you can say that nobody is guilty. In fact this is a kind of detective movie without a detective, the audience plays the role of detective but there are no criminals to catch because everyone is guilty.
Your films usually feature several important scenes in cars. In A Separation we see Simin’s breakdown happen as she is driving with her father in law, “About Elly” famously begins in a car and in The Past we have the scene in the airport and many other scenes where you show a shift in power dynamics in how Marie asks Ahmad to drive for her. Why cars?
(laughs) I was very young when I started writing, I would steal my father’s car and would drive without him knowing. Even though I don’t drive now, I still like driving very much, because when you’re moving in a car there is a rhythm in the background and there are images that are moving and in the true meaning of the word, this is cinema.
Do you feel like the international success of your films might help make censorship less restrictive in Iran?
I don’t think so. I don’t think my films can affect censorship in general.
The Past was submitted as Iran’s official Best Foreign Language Film selection. Given the success of your previous film, what are your expectations for the film during the Oscar season?
My expectation is that something happens that makes the people of my country happy. Today people in my country need happiness more than in any other time.
I heard that you were working on an opera…
(in English) How do you know? It’s a secret! (Laughs)
I was surprised about this because I don’t remember your films being particularly musical…
(laughs) I had an offer to work on an opera in Italy and because I don’t use music in my films I was attracted to this. Of course I think of opera more as theater and since I come from a theater background it has its appeal, but I’m not sure yet…
One last thing to satiate my purely cinephile curiosity, in The Past we know very little about Ahmad’s life in Iran even if he’s the co-lead. Why is he such a mystery? Do you want to revisit his story?
This is part of the characterization; this character is mystical and he has an Eastern mystification to his character that has made him attractive to Marie. The fact that we don’t really know him is also attractive to other people which is of course the certain viewpoint that the West has always had on the East (smiles).
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The Past opens in theaters on December 20.