'The Past' puts Iranian director on world stage

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2014 - 11:20 AM

Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi’s native country inspires his dark, circular dramas, even as he works in France.

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"The Past" director Asghar Farhadi, left, and cinemtographer Mahmoud Kalari.

Photo: Carole Bethuel, Sony Pictures Classics

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Oscar-winning writer/director Asghar Farhadi knows how tough the career of a filmmaker in Iran can be. Even — perhaps especially — for those who reach international audiences.

Because of state censorship, his colleagues Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“The Gardener”) and Shirin Neshat (“Women Without Men”) live in exile. Jafar Panahi (“This Is Not a Film”) is under house arrest, and Mohammad Rasoulof (“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”) has been forbidden to travel abroad. The revered Abbas Kiarostami (“Like Someone in Love”) now largely works overseas.

Farhadi, who won Iran’s first best foreign film Academy Award for 2012’s harrowing marital drama “A Separation,” traveled to France to film his follow-up, “The Past.” Working in the West, he said through a translator at the Toronto International Film Festival, “was like walking on unpaved road” and then coming to a smooth path.

He stressed with a circumspect smile that he referred only to the technical facilities.

“The Past,” a dark love triangle starring “The Artist’s” Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim, “would not have been believable had it been set in Tehran rather than Paris. In France it was easy for me to tell the story.”

Farhadi’s films begin in conventional genre disguise, then reveal deep mysteries lurking beneath the surface. “About Elly” opens with a carefree seaside vacation getaway for a jovial crew of Tehran yuppies. Then one woman vanishes and the story floods with grief. Such unexpected turns “are what life is about,” he said. “Life is like those Russian dolls. When you open one there’s another inside, and on and on.”

The 41-year-old filmmaker, who began his career as a playwright, finds that appreciation for life’s layered mysteries in works by Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. “They’re always circling around a situation. I don’t think I should start a story at A and end at B. I want to start at A, then circle around the story and go to the heart of it.”

That circuitous approach is one Iranians appreciate, he said. “In our culture we never speak directly about our emotions. That’s why we have a lot of poets in our literature that indirectly talk about their themes and subjects. In this film [the male lead, Ahmad] never directly speaks about what he wishes. Because of his culture he’s always beating around the bush.”

He chose the film’s themes and title because “for me the past, present and future is very important. In my films, men are mostly about tradition, and women are looking forward for change. Ahmad,” an Iranian visiting France to settle his affairs, “is all about the past. Even the fact that he returned to his country is significant.” Cleaning away the stains of the past is a central motif of the film, “We think we can erase the past but it’s impossible. The stain always remains.”

While Farhadi’s future on the world stage looks promising, he’s modest about his prospects. “Honestly, it’s not me who decides. If I like a story, wherever in the world it happens, I’ll do that. But I think I’ll stay in my tradition.”

While his social life has changed since becoming Iran’s first Oscar winner, “some things better, some things not. I used to go happily strolling in the streets, and that’s difficult now. With my wife and daughter, everything is the same.” He laughed at being described as a celebrity, saying “the good part of it is that now I have a big audience internationally. They’re expecting to see my next film, and I think that’s a very lucky situation.”

Farhadi said he is pleased that “The Past” was shown in identical form in France and Iran. “I want them to see it. I don’t want to disconnect from my people.” As for how Iran’s new, ostensibly more liberal government may affect his working life, he offered an eloquent shrug. “The situation within the administration is like the weather forecast. In the morning it’s sunny, then at noon it’s winter. Everything changes, you never know what’s going on. This is very difficult because you cannot predict what’s going to happen within the next hour. It looks like the administration is slightly better than the one before. It’s too early to judge, we should wait and see what they’re going to do.”

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