Bridging the cultural divide

By Peter Calder

A showcase of early films by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi show the beginnings of a career that has brought him to international acclaim, writes Peter Calder

In About Elly, Asghar Farhadi choreographs the action with effortless precision. Photo / Supplied
In About Elly, Asghar Farhadi choreographs the action with effortless precision. Photo / Supplied

Film-goers who were introduced to the work of Iranian maestro Asghar Farhadi, as I was, with his exquisite Oscar-winning domestic drama A Separation get the chance over the next fortnight to catch up with his entire back catalogue.

As part of the new Autumn Events programme, which has replaced the Showcase mini-fest that always showed up at this time of year, Farhadi's four previous films are on show.

It's a rare opportunity to take in the entire career of a man who is now plainly in the front rank of international directors - his newest film, The Past, his first made outside Iran, is screening in competition at Cannes this month - and the scheduling of the four films over a fortnight makes it easier to savour them as they deserve.

One of the most striking aspects of A Separation was the way it presented universal human truths in a social context of rich specificity. What occurred in the film, in the way that it occurred, could only have happened in Iran; but audiences anywhere could instantly identify with the besetting pain of trying to do their best in circumstances that don't bring the best out in anyone.

It's what makes that film and these four others so richly satisfying: in the great tradition of the pioneering neo-realists such as Satyajit Ray in the Apu Trilogy and Vittorio De Sica in Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves, Farhadi creates portraits of life in contemporary Iran that take us straight into real lives. The films pay no attention to the country's fundamentalist theocracy or status as geopolitical rogue. The restrictions of life in a non-secular society are taken for granted, as indelibly part of the mise en scene as dusty roads or snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Some of the nuances in a Farhadi film will elude non-Iranian viewers. This is particularly true in respect of social class, which was such a powerful dramatic force in A Separation. Class plays a big role, too, in Fireworks Wednesday, in which the main character, a young woman temping as a cleaner to save money for her wedding dress, becomes, perhaps not entirely unwittingly, drawn into the domestic strife of her employers.

Beautiful City, meanwhile, takes an intimate look at the process by which the family bereaved by a killing can exert a life or death power over the perpetrator. Its main character turns 18 in prison, thus becoming eligible for execution, and we watch enthralled as his best mate and his sister work together to persuade the father of the young woman he killed to spare him.

Set-ups like these have the richness of ethnography about them but Farhadi has a real gift for making the dramas entirely accessible even as the details remain mysterious. With the same deft touch he makes his characters worthy of our respect and compassion and denies us the chance to overlay them with simplistic good/evil binaries.

Though ultimately a darker film than A Separation, the masterful About Elly is a film of the same calibre. It's a breathtaking display of technical bravura - most of the action takes place in a large, largely unfurnished house and in long takes captured with a handheld camera, Farhadi choreographs the action with effortless precision.

The film's characters are three couples who went to law school together who are taking a break at a Caspian Sea beach. They are joined by the brother of one of the wives, who is smarting from his marriage breakdown; and the title character, the young teacher of one of the couples' kids, who starts out mysterious and becomes the film's central enigma.

The discovery that the beach house the group had been promised is suddenly not available sets the scene for a film that could profitably have been called Secrets and Lies: this is a story in which nothing that anybody says is entirely to be trusted and we are forced into the same state of uncertainty - particularly about the title character's whereabouts - as afflicts all of the characters.

The film is similar to A Separation, in that it leaves us to decide what we think of the various characters; the difference is that, as the plot thickens, everyone starts looking after themselves. Unsurprisingly, things head downhill. The ending, in particular the final shot, is quietly devastating.

From unprepossessing material, Farhadi has created an improbably knuckle-whitening thriller, which plainly has a pointed intent in a society where pretence and deception are parts of everyday life. This is a dangerous business in Iran where social commentary is not kindly regarded: the regime imprisoned Jafar Panahi and would probably have done the same to Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf if they had not chosen to live abroad.

For his part, Farhadi seems sanguine about the situation: censorship in Iran, he told the English magazine Time Out, "is a bit like the British weather: one day it's sunny, the next day it's raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine."

What: The Films of Asghar Farhadi, part of the New Zealand International Film Festival's Autumn Events
When: The four films - chronologically the fourth, second, first and third - will each have a single screening only. The Academy screens About Elly on Wednesday, May 8, 6.15pm. The Rialto Newmarket shows Beautiful City on Saturday, May 11 at 6pm; Dancing in the Dust on Wednesday, May 15 at 6.15pm; and Fireworks Wednesday on Saturday, May 18 at 6pm.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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