'The Past' is present: Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi returns with tale of complex romantic triangle


When A Separation won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011, its writer-director Asghar Farhadi made Oscar history, having created the first Iranian film to go home with the prize. His acceptance speech, in which he dedicated the award to the people of his country, was brief yet memorable, and celebrated that the name of his country was being mentioned alongside its rich, glorious culture at a politically complicated time. “A culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” he said.

On top of Farhadi’s firm control over the film’s multi-layered plot and emotional turns, the brilliance of A Separation certainly had a lot to do with the way he employed many aspects of Iranian culture and societal structure in telling a widely universal, accessible and ultimately relatable story, brushing aside the political dust he referred to in his speech. The same can be said about his cinema entirely, with films that tell culturally charged yet emotionally borderless stories, whether they are set in Iran like his previous films, or set in France like his latest, The Past—a beautiful, multifaceted and immensely crafty film which first screened at the Cannes Film Festival last May (and which is now Iran’s official entry for the 86th Academy Awards).

I saw The Past at the 40th Telluride Film Festival last September, and spoke to Farhadi about it, along with the recurring themes in his cinema and his artistic sensibilities. Addressing why he set his latest story in Paris, France, instead of Iran, he explained, “I didn’t decide to make this story in France. The story told me that I needed to make it happen outside of Iran. My story is about a man going to another country. Because the subject and the theme of the story are about the past, I had to choose a place that has the flavor and smell of the past.”

Farhadi noted that he’s been traveling to Paris a lot recently, and that he feels close to its atmosphere. “There are many common elements between our country, Iran, and the French. And that’s why when I go there, I don’t feel I’m a stranger.” He added, “I wanted to base the story upon the similarities—our commonness, not our differences. This story is making sense to both countries, to both people.”

For fans of A Separation, but especially those familiar with the filmmaker’s full filmography—which includes Dancing in the Dust, Beautiful City, Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly—there is no mistaking Farhadi’s signature storytelling style, which is also evident in his new Sony Pictures Classics release. He usually avoids using music until the ending (not because he is against it, but because he wants to establish a certain documentary-like realism), and the layers of his often urban stories can be peeled like an onion in a detective-like pursuit of the truth hidden within. Asked about his process of constructing his scripts, he revealed that he first starts with a small, raw story. “Then I play the devil’s advocate with it. I keep asking why this person is doing this and why the other person is behaving that way. And I give the characters the chance to defend themselves. Have you seen the Russian dolls? When you open it, there is a smaller one. And then you keep opening. You keep going deeper and deeper inside. I don’t want the story I want to tell to start from A and end at B. I want it to start from the A point and I want to circle around until I get to the heart of it. That’s why there is always a situation that I have to hover around.” He added, “I always want to finish my film the moment where the audience thinks that this story is actually going to start.”

With The Past, Farhadi once again tackles the many universal complexities of being a family, and ultimately being human, while its main protagonists Marie (Bérénice Bejo), Samir (Tahar Rahim) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) unveil secrets, search for truth, and are challenged to make some impossible decisions along the way, putting their personal ethics at stake. Asked about his fascination with stories that evolve around families, the director said he thinks of family as a “prototype of a bigger society. It’s very rich in its content. It’s got kids. It’s got women. It’s got men. It’s got older people. So I thought instead of analyzing and depicting a bigger society, I could show the dynamics of a family, which are exactly as the dynamics of a society.”

It’s worth noting here that Farhadi’s stories usually find a certain level of strength and authenticity through the key roles children (who observe more than we give them credit for) hold in them. “I can’t even think about a story that doesn’t have a child in it,” he declared. “If there is no child, I will not make the film.” He observed that the more people age, the closer they get to their own childhood, and that as he grows, he wants to go back to his own childhood. “It’s like I am seeing my own childhood through the eyes and lives of those children,” He added that children bring honesty to his movies, a gauge to find the truth.

This brings us to the topic of the search for truth and justice, perhaps the most evident common denominator of his films. I reminded the director about the comparisons drawn between A Separation and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon at the time of its release. We tend to simplify the truth by thinking we can just go and grab it, he observed. “But for me, the truth is not something you can grab. It’s everywhere. It’s moving. Because all of the characters in the movie, when they are saying something, they all believe that they are saying the truth. And they are saying just a part of the truth. What I strongly believe is that the truth is no absolute. It’s very relative. The best example is Rashomon. I love that film. And that’s also the truth. And every time you hear the story, there is one point of this truth. And at the end we still don’t know which one is the real truth.”

One element that helps truth take its many shapes in most of Farhadi’s films is the way it’s transported from room to room, or overheard through doors or hallways. The Past, for instance, is mostly set in Marie’s Parisian home, where Ahmad arrives from Iran to finalize his divorce from his wife, who now is in a live-in relationship with Samir. To Farhadi, home is a very important element of his family-centered stories, and his background in theatre and stage work really helps him to “work within the confinements of rooms and walls.” “I’m a stage director. And that’s why when I use this space, I am kind of creating a bridge between my background and the films that I’m making.”

There’s a constant tease of danger that occurs in confined spaces (more literal in About Elly and Dancing in the Dust, yet subtler in Farhadi’s other films including The Past). “This comes from dramaturgy,” he observed. “The drama is that first you have a status quo. Then something happens and suddenly changes everything. And then everything is trying to bring the situation back to the status quo. So it’s like art; it’s still. But then you drop this stone in it and it creates ripples. So those ripples and those waves, they get to the wall and then they create another set of ripples and waves. So I always think that all the stories happen as if you’ve dropped this stone into that lake. In About Elly, the disappearance of Elly was the stone that was dropped. In A Separation, when the woman decides that she wants to get separated, that’s when the stone gets dropped.”

Farhadi noted that The Past sits in a slightly distinct place among his stories. “The stone had been dropped before in the past. And now we are only seeing the ripples coming back. That’s why the rhythm of this film is a bit different from my other films. My previous film has a very high intensity because it’s happening in the moment. But here the events had happened four years ago.”

I shared my observation that the women in his films seem to have more intuition and mystery than men. Farhadi countered that he doesn’t split his characters into female and male when writing his stories, but added, “The women in my films are always willing for some change. But the men want stability. Women are more facing the future and men are more facing towards the past. And women, they want to become more modernized, but men want to hold onto their traditions. And it’s the clash of these two opposites that creates drama. But also, I don’t know why I say it, but I always feel women are more mysterious than men.”

Looking back on his Oscar triumph with A Separation, Farhadi insisted that nothing has changed in his personal life. His relationship with his family and his friends has remained the same. “The biggest change was that it increased my audience everywhere,” he acknowledged. “Now I know when I make films, there are people who are expecting to see them. This has made my work easier.” But he also touched upon the danger of the prize, admitting, “I should now compete with myself.”

Last September was actually not the first time Asghar Farhadi was in Telluride. He was there a couple of years ago with A Separation, and apparently worked out a scene of The Past while in town. I took this opportunity to ask him whether he was then working on his next project, being back at Telluride. “Yeah, these days that I’m spending in Telluride, I actually have meetings that are concerned with my next project,” he confided. “Just before we came here, I was telling the story of my next project to an American and I wanted to see his reaction. When I was in Telluride before, I recall I was writing the scene, the notes, about the laundry. Because when I came to the city and I went out on the street, I realized there are no laundries here in this town."