By the third time out or so, you realize that a filmmaker you’ve only been vaguely or even just accidentally keeping up with clearly deserves more particular notice – and so you sit up and pay attention, remember the name, start looking for it on festival schedules, indeed, choose that name over others, becoming attuned to obviously ongoing stylistic and thematic concerns that portend a significant body of work in the making.
Asghar Farhadi is a director who deserves that sort of attention – and likely I’m slow on the uptake here. Farhadi has been consistently winning prizes at international festivals since his first film Dancing in the Dust in 2003. I caught up with him in 2006 with Fireworks Wednesday, which won the Golden Hugo at that year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Then I was blown away by About Elly at the festival in 2009. Last year, Farhadi’s film A Separation took top prize at Berlin, best foreign language film recognition at the Golden Globes, and is a contender not just for a Foreign Film Oscar this year but also for Best Original Screenplay (he writes his own scripts, though occasionally with a co-writer). So, if you haven’t already, pay attention to this guy.
After three films, I’m beginning to place Farhadi on the map. Let’s say somewhere in the neighborhood of Bergman when he’s doing his intense dissections of marriage and family, or Rohmer, conducting his systematic symposium on love and relationships. The style is that of international neo-realism (ala Romanian cinema like that of Christian Mungiu and also the work of the Dardenne brothers), with slickish production values, excellent acting, deceptively simple but fluid camera work, supremely economical editing and storytelling, and indeed, tight and layered scripts.
Farhadi spins a plot from complex relationships and backstories, woven with the deadly sins (jealousy, lust, fear, anger, etc), knots it with mistakes and miscommunications, then lets it all tumble toward tragedy, while innocence watches from the wings. Fireworks Wednesday set marital strife against a New Year’s celebration, About Elly, friendships in a weekend gathering against the overwhelming, ambiguous sea. They say David Lynch has an uncanny connection to both good and evil, angels and demons – a rare quality, which is most powerful when most balanced. Farhadi, too, seems to have equal mastery of either end of various spectra, of love and romance, and betrayal, selfishness and disillusion — against a pair of layered backgrounds.
First, there is a weary sense of the inevitability of human beings in choosing badly, and a tragic gravity that pulls us downward even in the midst of trying to escape it. Second, there is a moral and even spiritual context that makes conspicuous its absence in more recent Western cinema on similar topics. Recall this is a culture which did not experience history as it has unfolded in the West, from the triumph of smug Enlightenment Scientism through a post-Enlightenment crash into the void. Against that background, it’s not so easy to pull off either innocence or an unselfconscious sense of SIN – and the moral underpinnings in Farhadi are sturdy enough to keep his unsparing views of the human condition from leaving us in Bergmanish despair.
For those who’ve never seen an Iranian film, this may explain part of what the fuss has been about, this decidedly non-Western sensibility under an intact sacred canopy, combined with the clear-eyed view of a 5000+ year old civilization with poetic sensibilities and subtleties wound along those millennia now feeding into a unique and bracing cinematic vision. Excuse me if I gush, but I really hope to encourage people who might not otherwise try this film to take advantage of Iran’s second Oscar contender, which should thus have much wider distribution than usual. The first Iranian nominee was Majid Majidi’s 1998 Children of Heaven – one of the genre of Iranian films featuring children which found international popular appeal; A Separation is a grown up film.
In this outing, we see now-familiar Farhadi elements – marital conflict with innocent children watching (and so losing their innocence). This time there’s also elderly parents, misunderstandings, pride, stubbornness, family chaos that overflows into hospitals and courts, people trying to do good but doing wrong – no bad guys but bad choices distributed all around, a heart-breaking tragedy of errors. Not a date movie, but a good movie for any couple to see.
Another directorial touchstone which I’d already applied to a previous Farhadi film also works for A Separation: “Hitchcockian” – though I need to explain that a bit further. The plots are deeply entangling, with powerless characters unexpectedly pulled into a quagmire of circumstances beyond their control – but not over-the-top Mount Rushmore-climbing sorts of circumstances, just the gut-slamming mundanities of everyday life: these characters get mired in their pathetic humanity and trying to get out, only get in deeper.
Great claims are made to try to get you to see films of various kinds. Lately, George Lucas would have you to believe seeing Red Tails will make a major difference in race relations and the future of black cinema in this country; not long ago, Mel Gibson and his megachurch marketing associates leveraged even more cosmic significances to fill theaters for a movie. Without venturing into that territory, I would like to suggest that since the nation of Iran seems to be continually in the gun-sights of America, and most Americans know little of Iran except for “Death to America” rallies, that there may indeed be much riding on people in this country taking a closer look at people in that country – and discovering how alike we all are. Go see A Separation – and put the name Asghar Farhadi on your watch list.