The films of Asghar Farhadi

Writer and director Asghar Farhadi’s work has slowly but steadily become better known since his career began, his fame expanding from his native Iran to catch the interest of film lovers internationally, and finally gaining the attention of Hollywood and the world at large.

Following two Iranian television series and two well-received but lesser-known features (Dancing in the Dust, 2003; and Beautiful City, 2004), Farhadi began to make a breakthrough. His critical reception and popularity have increased since then, culminating in an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Screenplay award at Cannes for his 2016 drama, The Salesman; and finally, in 2018, his first feature set outside Iran, Everybody Knows, which received a great deal of positive attention, particularly in Spain, where it was filmed; and at Cannes, where it was a nominee for the 2018 Palme d’Or.

Farhadi’s films are each unique, but they all share the director’s approach to storytelling, focusing on the small and intimate rather than the melodramatic or outwardly significant. Seemingly trivial events in the lives of ordinary people are examined, closely and in loving detail, and passion, drama, and significance are found in the characters’ minor, everyday conflicts and tragedies. Farhadi’s skill gives these small-scale, personal stories importance, and manages to show them with a simple realism that is neither dramatised nor cinema-vérité naturalistic, but rather like watching someone’s memories of an event, accurate but coloured by emotion. Nobody tells this particular kind of story better. 

Some of his work over the years…

2006: Fireworks Wednesday

The title of this insightful, small-scale character study refers to the Iranian new year and the practice of celebrating with fireworks and bonfires the evening before. It is also the first day of spring, and complete cleaning of homes prior to the day is a widespread custom in Iran. A young rural woman, Rouhi (Taraneh Alidousti, who worked with Farhadi in two other films), is hired by a wealthy Tehran family to clean their apartment prior to the festival. Rouhi is engaged and takes the job to earn extra money before her wedding. She is a cheerful girl, optimistic about her upcoming marriage, enjoying a warm, comfortable, trusting relationship with her fiancé. 

Rouhi is startled by the atmosphere in Tehran, unaccustomed to the noise and bustle, or the mild hostility of the strangers she encounters. The apartment she is hired to clean is also a shock to her: it is not merely messy, but shows signs of recent violence, with household items scattered and glass from a broken window on the floor. Rouhi is alarmed by the constant bickering of the couple she works for, the wife’s erratic and hostile behaviour toward her, and the woman’s sudden change of heart when she asks Rouhi to spy on a neighbour’s hair salon. It turns out the wife suspects her husband of infidelity with the salon owner. As Rouhi continues her temporary work, becomes familiar with the suspected salon owner, and experiences more of her employers’ increasingly tense life, we observe the couple’s toxic relationship through Rouhi’s more naive and idealistic perspective. According to Farhadi, Fireworks Wednesday “is a film about human beings in conflict – a day in their existence that is fraught with tension.” It is, Farhadi states, a tragedy in contrast with the classical idea of tragedy as a conflict between good and evil. “In our complex and difficult modern times,” he explains, “tragedy may be born of the conflict between two forms of good,” as is the case with the characters in Fireworks Wednesday.

As more layers of the couple’s unstable marriage are revealed, Rouhi’s rosy view of marriage, and even of human beings, is badly shaken. In an understated but moving scene, she returns home to the country just as the new year’s fireworks and celebrations are underway, the noise and chaos in the streets echoing her own inner disruption. Rouhi’s reunion with her fiancé is shown with a gentle poignancy that is Farhadi’s speciality: the fiancé is the same as he was when they parted a few days earlier, but she has changed, having lost her trust and sense of security, perhaps forever. Words and underlying meanings are carefully managed to show us the dual perspectives in place now, and the slight but unsettling distance it has placed between the young couple.

2009: About Elly

A deceptively simple ensemble piece, About Elly deals with a matchmaking attempt that goes wrong, leading a group of people into a confusing swamp of potential embarrassment, conflicting social obligations, mutual recriminations, and layers of deception.

The story revolves around a young woman named Elly, who turns out to be an enigma each character interprets as best he can. An unexpected mishap leaves the entire group scrambling to avoid public censure, and having to decide how far they will go to save face. It is a fascinating study of human nature, and the conflicts between social pressure, compassion, and fear of disgrace. 

2011: A Separation

This Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film) and nominee for countless international awards managed to bring Farhadi further into the spotlight outside his native Iran. A Separation is a family tale, Farhadi’s speciality, but one which manipulates the many aspects of a domestic conflict to create a riveting and touching drama. 

Actor, director, and screenwriter Payman Maadi plays Nadir, whose formerly peaceful family life has been disrupted. His wife Simin (award-winning actress Leila Hatami) is convinced the family should leave Iran for the sake of their daughter’s future and is willing to divorce her husband if necessary. Nadir is torn between his wife’s wishes and concern for their daughter, and his responsibility to care for his ailing father. Their dispute becomes associated with other people in their lives; with cultural and religious issues and family secrets; and ultimately with the law and quietly tense courtroom scenes, in a subtle, sensitive, and carefully managed the narrative.

2016: The Salesman

The Salesman refers to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; the play is being rehearsed by a small theatre group. The opening shot is of the minimalist stage set prepared for the play: an empty, unmade double bed, a kitchen table, a neon sign. Married couple Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) are two performers in the play. Rehearsals begin, along with negotiations over censored scenes; meanwhile, Emad, a teacher, introduces the play, Death of a Salesman, to his students. The parallel between the film’s main storyline, and that of Arthur Miller’s play, is established.

While all seems well, minor disturbances continue to arise, the most serious being a small earthquake which forces Emad and Rana to find a temporary apartment while their building is under repair. The move results in the central event of the story: Rana is attacked in her home, apparently the result of mistaken identity. This calamity sets off a series of events, which gradually gain momentum and begin to take over the couple’s lives. 

Like all of Farhadi’s films, The Salesman is primarily a character study, an examination of people and the relationships between them. In this case, the theme, as Farhadi explained in the interview, is humiliation. It is central to Death of a Salesman and is made the driving force in this film as well. Emad is at first concerned mainly about his wife’s injuries and the emotional impact of the attack on her. In time, he becomes more and more obsessed with the perceived humiliation he associates with the attack. Like Willie Loman in Miller’s play, Eman becomes fixated on his personal indignity, and begins to plot revenge. The sub-plots, including Rana’s recovery, the play’s rehearsal, and Eman’s teaching, provide quiet commentary, or even warning: a poster for the film Shame is displayed on the apartment wall at a particular moment in the film; Eman’s students discuss the Iranian film The Cow, in particular, the concept of a man turning into an animal. The drive for revenge leads Eman into genuine disgrace, in a painful and tragic conclusion.

2018: Everybody Knows

This film is something of a departure for Farhadi, and not only because it is entirely in Spanish. The central event of the suspenseful plot is the abduction of a sixteen-year-old girl, followed by a ransom demand. Like all Farhadi’s films, however, it remains primarily about human relationships and human interactions, and the complications that can arise from them. The opening scenes show the interior of the town’s clock tower, and the presence of names and initials carved into the tower walls long ago, a suggestion that the past continues to have an impact on the present.

Laura (Penelope Cruz) is travelling with her teenaged daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), to her home-town in Spain, to attend a wedding. She is considered a success story, having married a well-off man and moved away to Buenas Aires to live in comfort. Laura is happy to be reunited with her relatives and friends, including former lover Paco (Javier Bardem), now also married. Everyone seems to be on good terms, and there is no expectation of trouble except through the faintest of hints in the film’s subtext: the recklessness of Laura’s carefree daughter; the unexplained presence of a camera drone filming the outdoor wedding. The wedding guests are shocked when Irene disappears, evidently taken from her bed during the night and held for ransom. A ransom message warns against contacting the police.

As the wedding party desperately searches for clues, argues over whether to notify the police, and tries to find a way to gather the ransom money, past dealings among the group begin to slowly surface, bringing out former conflicts, past rumours, misunderstandings and resentments, some from decades ago, others very recent. Suspicions arise that one or more of a member of the party were involved in the kidnapping, as possible reasons for such an act become known, leaving the group unsure of what to believe, who to trust. Even genuine efforts to retrieve the lost girl are thwarted by the personal clashes and doubts that take over the party, presented in a kind of unhurried, beautifully choreographed chaos by the carefully devised script.  

The film also works well as a thriller; the danger and uncertainty of the abducted girl, the fear of her family, and the possible identity and motives of her kidnapers are used to maintain taut suspense, enhancing the personal storyline. Before the situation is finally resolved, all secrets are brought out, all past rivalries revealed; but even as the party recover from the panic and stress they’ve just endured, Farhadi hints that the former impulse to spread rumours and maintain secrets may be an incurable aspect of this group of friends. A great script, supported by an excellent ensemble cast, allow Farhadi’s latest film to live up to his reputation, and promise good things to come.

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