Tag Archives: Asghar Farhadi

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben Spain-France-Italy 2018)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Irene (Carla Campra) meet Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) and his uncle Paco (Javier Bardem)

Everybody Knows opened the Cannes competition in 2018 to mixed reviews (although better than usual for the opening film) and it has taken some time to get into UK distribution. I suspect that audiences have discovered the film to be better than some of the early reviews suggested and the film opened reasonably well in the UK. I enjoyed the film very much and the interesting questions for me revolve around expectations for a film by the director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (Iran 2011) and The Salesman (Iran-France 2016) and the extent to which those same audiences know Asghar Farhadi’s earlier Iranian work.

When the film began I found it fast-moving and packed with incident. I struggled to follow all the dialogue in the subtitles and especially the relationships in a large extended family in a small village community. I also wondered if there was something ‘not Spanish’ about it. Later, as I watched Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz I was reminded of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain-US 2008and thought how much better this Farhadi film was. But this does indicate that I couldn’t quite forget that this was a film in which the director was not working in his first (or even second?) language. I later read that Farhadi had written the script before he undertook production of The Salesman in 2016 and after he wrote The Past (2013) –  a film largely in French but also with an Iranian character. Re-reading those posts now I realise why, watching the new film, I was reminded of About Elly (Iran 2009). Everybody Knows is a different kind of story in some ways but comparing it to Farhadi’s earlier films and especially About Elly will reveal something, I think. But first I need to sketch out an outline of the new film (without any major spoilers).

Paco and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children, sixteen-year old Irene and her young brother, arrive in a small village not too far from Madrid but sufficiently rural to be isolated. They have come from Argentina to attend the wedding of Laura’s sister Ana and they are staying in the hotel in the centre of the village owned by Laura’s elder sister Mariana and her husband Fernando. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) is at this point still in Argentina. Laura soon meets Paco (Javier Bardem). He was Laura’s childhood friend and the two were inseparable before she went to Argentina but she hasn’t seen him in the last 16 years and now he has a beautiful wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and owns half a thriving wine-producing business. Laura also meets her father who she is shocked to realise has grown old and frail – though he still has a temper. On the night of the wedding party all is going well until Irene, who had gone to bed early feeling a little unwell, disappears and at this point what might have been a familiar family melodrama becomes instead a melodrama thriller. Is Irene in danger? Did she go voluntarily or has someone taken her? We remember that in the opening credit sequence we saw someone wearing gloves clipping a newspaper story and now those clippings are found on Irene’s bed.

What follows is a typical Farhadi narrative as the family  – and the villagers who know something is wrong, but not what it is – begin to squabble and we wonder if lies are being told by some characters and why they might lie. We are back in a Farhadi world where telling lies becomes almost natural and where one lie begats another and so on. The difference is that in the Iranian film, Western audiences are likely to read the telling of lies as indicative of the repression in Iranian society. In About Elly, for instance, a group of married friends from Tehran rent a house by the sea for ‘a weekend away’ and one of the married women invites her child’s nursery teacher, Elly, to come with them. One of the men has just returned from Germany where he got divorced and in a moment of madness the group tell their landlady that he and Elly are a ‘honeymoon couple’. This is the first lie but more will occur when Elly goes missing. Has she drowned in the sea or fled back to the city? What can the group tell the police? They don’t actually know much about her.

The extended family gather to watch a video of the wedding in the hope of finding a clue to Irene’s disappearance.

In Everybody Knows, there is a great deal of family history that is slowly revealed and it will involve questions of social class, landowner and peasant, as well as relationships and infidelities. The village is a small community in which ‘Everybody Knows’. Most critics don’t seem to equate this family melodrama with any kind of analysis of Spanish society – as they would in the Iranian context. Instead, the film tends to be written about as a thriller genre film. On the other hand, there is something about the cast and the setting that invokes an Almodóvar film and Pedro appears in the ‘thanks list’ in the closing credits. The film it most reminds us of is Volver (2006) in which Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) returns to her home village in La Mancha to experience a host of family memories. The veteran cinematographer on that film (and others by Almodóvar), José Luis Alcaine, also photographed Everybody Knows. Several cast members have appeared in Almodóvar’s films.

I have only been able to find Press Notes in French and they reveal that Farhadi first visited Spain “fifteen years ago” and the kernel of the idea for the story emerged then. At that point in 2003 he had only just begun to make cinema films and the script idea changed over the next few years as he became more familiar with the work of the actors he would eventually cast. He wrote the first drafts in Farsi and had them translated, getting feedback until his Spanish collaborators were satisfied that the script was wholly ‘Spanish’. Because of the high-profile stars who were always busy it then took  several years to finally move into production. Farhadi argues that he doesn’t make ‘message films’, implying that he is mainly interested in ‘relationships’. However, I’m sure he knows the history of melodrama and he knows that it has been an important form commenting on and exploring moments of social change. I think therefore it’s reasonable to argue that in the fifteen years or so it has taken the film to emerge, families like the one in this narrative have been affected by changing social mores and issues associated with various forms of migration as well as suffering from the impact of financial crises etc. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But I think this will be a narrative worth some analysis over the next few years.

Cruz, Bardem and Darin are arguably the biggest Hispanic-language stars in  international cinema and one of the great pleasures of the film is to see them in scenes together. Farhadi’s great strength is in his rapport with his actors. I’ve seen some complaints that the film is too slow in its second half and that the thriller elements don’t conform to genre conventions. Farhadi’s films are long (this one is over 130 mins) but I found every minute riveting. The narrative does come to a conclusion but not what I would call a full ‘resolution’. There are several unanswered questions as to motivation and also about what happens next. It almost feels like a new story might be about to begin. I’d like to see the next instalment.

Here’s a North American trailer (the film is distributed in the UK and North America by Universal):

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy 2013)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Samir (Tahir Rahim) (photograph © Carole Bethuel)

I’m surprised at the relatively low-key distribution of this Asghar Farhadi film in the UK. It’s had some great reviews but it seems a crowded marketplace at the moment (it would have been good to see it in January-February when there were no other major foreign language films around).

This is Farhadi’s first film in French. The accompanying press pack suggests that he had already been working towards a European production before he was awarded some French public funding after the success of A Separation – one of the most celebrated films to win the Foreign Language Academy Award. A Separation also did phenomenal business in France with over 1 million admissions. I wonder if the film is understood differently by audiences familiar with Farhadi’s Iranian work and those coming to him for the first time with this French-language work? The obvious difference would seem to be that in the Iranian films we are nearly always looking for metaphors and allegories whereas the French film will presumably be taken at face value as a form of family melodrama?

The story involves a woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who has been married twice and is now having an affair with Samir (Tahir Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma. Marie has persuaded her second husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return to Paris from Iran in order to formally agree to divorce her. She has two daughters from her first marriage, Léa and Lucie, and Samir has a young son, Fouad. These six are the principal characters in the drama. Marie meets Ahmad from the airport and immediately he is wary because she has not booked a hotel for him. Instead she wants him to stay at their house where the three children are also staying. He soon discovers that his presence is required for another reason besides the simple legal procedure. He is needed as a kind of counsellor since it is clear that all is not well in the household.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Fouad (Elyes Aguis) (photo © Carole Bethuel)

At first, with the divorce looming I thought this might be a continuation of A Separation. Then it occurred to me that it was more like a French version of About Elly. In that film, once a lie is told, everyone must continue to lie in order not to expose any impropriety in their various relationships (i.e. all the characters are aware of the difficult position of women in Iranian society). In The Past, characters don’t trust each other to cope with the truth, but by lying they make it more difficult to come to terms with exactly what has happened. I’ve subsequently realised that as in Farhadi’s three previous films it is the outsider Ahmad who acts as the disruptive agent in the opening up of the narrative – not deliberately on his part, but simply because he comes from ‘outside’.

Asghar Farhadi has many strengths as a writer-director. He writes wonderful scripts with interesting characters. He directs actors brilliantly and he is able to move the narrative forward seamlessly, albeit at a pace which would be too slow for Hollywood. Fortunately, there is no requirement to cut at Hollywood rhythms so Farhadi’s complex narratives can unfold at the pace he determines. The film is 130 minutes long and at one point when Farhadi peels back yet another layer of the onion that is the script I did feel that perhaps he had taken just one step too far in his convoluted plotting, but his skill is so great that I was soon following the next section of the narrative and through to the delicately handled and well-judged closing moments.

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

Lucie (Pauline Burlet) whose revelations drive the narrative (photo © Carole Bethuel)

In a film like this it is all too easy not to notice the effort that goes into the construction of scenes. The film was budgeted at €8 million which is significantly higher than the current UK budget for this kind of film, but modest by some French standards. The interiors were constructed in a studio and for the exteriors Farhadi decided not to include any iconic Parisian sights which would detract from the drama. The press pack interview with cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari who also shot A Separation and earlier worked for Panahi, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is revealing. He suggests that the tension and frantic activity in A Separation (in which there are many quasi-legal disputes about who did what) was achieved through handheld camerawork. The Past started as another handheld shoot, but Farhadi soon changed to using a static camera. At the same time some scenes have many short shots and plenty of pace while others have relatively long takes. Kalari argues that Farhadi is very ‘organic’ (he doesn’t use that term but I think it matches what he means). He tries to avoid the artificialty of ‘acting’ or ‘perfect compositions’. Here’s an extract from the interview in which he explains what is different from the approach in A Separation:

. . . here the camera takes on the point of view of each character. In this film, the characters get close to each other, while still maintaining a certain distance from one another. But they are gathered together in sorts of choral sequences. And so, Asghar Farhadi has taken on the way each character views the others and the situation. And then, there was also something that my team was constantly talking about here, something they found both disconcerting and interesting: Mr Farhadi placed the actors in the most uncomfortable situations and the most complicated in terms of lighting and setting up the shot. He would place them in doorframes, which is something we avoid at all costs in the cinema . . .

One thing to note here is that Farhadi is not a ‘social realist’ or ‘neo-realist’ in his approach (see discussion of A Separation on this blog). In some ways, and perhaps because of his theatre background, he seems nearer to Mike Leigh. (Farhadi also rehearses his actors for several weeks before shooting begins, taking them through various exercises and encouraging them to learn about their characters.) I should also point out that for most of the film, Farhadi makes only a limited use of music and the film only begins to resemble a melodrama in the final section. I do wonder about the symbolism of some elements of mise en scène but I think I need to see the whole film again before I explore the idea further.

I note that one of the features of Farhadi’s script for A Separation was that it was in some ways a universal story, even though it included elements only found in Iran. The Past is also a universal story but without the obvious restrictions on social behaviour that exist in contemporary Iran. Could the film be set anywhere in the West? Is there anything specifically ‘French’ about it? One obvious observation is that the restrictions in Iran derive from certain attitudes towards Muslim teachings and in France the whole question of ‘integration’ and the secular French state is still very much a live issue. There is no reference to Muslim culture as such in The Past. As far as I am aware, Marie is not from a ‘minority community’ in France – but she has chosen to live with first Ahmad and then Samir (one of the children suggests that Samir looks a little like Ahmad – that he is a kind of ‘replacement’). Samir’s wife is similarly not from a specific minority. The French accent is a key distinguishing mark here (once again lost to us cloth-eared anglos). Samir’s shop assistant (he has a dry-cleaning business) is an illegal worker  who has ‘an accent’. Ahmad also speaks French with an accent (the actor had to be coached – we never learn just how long the character might have lived in France). There does seem to be a focus on migrant and second/third generation immigrant communities. France is home to many significant refugee communities and Paris is home to a significant Iranian diaspora community – and we should remember that one of the issues in A Separation is whether or not the couple’s daughter would have a better future abroad. Casting is also important. Samir is played by Tahar Rahim, a rising young star associated with key roles related to North African identity in France. But he and the other two lead actors insist that ethnicity/cultural identity/French social issues were not part of the film. Ali Mosaffa says that it is simply a ‘human story’. As if to emphasise this Rahim tells us that Farhadi asked him to watch De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and to focus on the father-son relationship. That slippery concept of the humanist film is very much there in The Past – everyone has a perspective and a reason for doing what they do. They all behave like ‘real people’ do and they have their ‘ups and downs’.

I have to end by praising all the actors’ responses to Asghar Farhadi’s direction. I must pick out Bérénice Bejo since her’s is the most dramatic change of image from The Artist and Populaire. In those films she is smart and indeed ‘Peppy’ in The Artist. In The Past she is weary in loose-fitting, almost shapeless dresses with her hair loose and little make-up – and she looks wonderful. Perhaps it’s the Anna Magnani/Ingrid Bergman look from Rossellini’s films?

Asghar Farhadi’s work is featured in Chapter 6 of The Global Film Book. See also the entry on Fireworks Wednesday on this blog.

Films From the South #9: About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran 2009)

The crucial moment in the narrative . . . when Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) flies a kite.

About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?

From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.

I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?

Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).

The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.

Shooting the scene featured at the head of this posting.

Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).

Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)

Trailer with English subs:

Films From the South #8: Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe-soori, Iran 2006)

Hedye Tehrani and Hamid Farokhnezhad as the married couple at the centre of Fireworks Wednesday.

Asghar Farhadi is the second of the featured directors in the festival with his latest film Nader and Simin: A Separation showing in the Main Competition. That film has already been shown in many territories, including the UK where it has been a big hit, not least with the contributors on this blog. I was eager to see the two earlier films by this director showing in the festival. These last three films by Farhadi are clearly all the work of the same extremely talented filmmaker and although they present three distinct stories, there are common themes, a common cultural location – Tehran’s middle classes – and the same sense of a subtle satire. I can almost imagine a DVD box set entitled ‘Marriage Iranian Style‘.

Fireworks Wednesday takes place over the Tuesday and ‘eve’ of the Wednesday of Persian New Year in Iran (thus the Iranian title of the film, referring to a Zoroastrian festival). There appears to be a similar sense of carnival and mayhem in the streets, with the letting off of fireworks and impromptu bonfires, as there is in the UK on November 5th (i.e. Bonfire Night and also the customs of Mischief Night). This then becomes the setting for a narrative about marriage. The narrative agent is Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young woman from the outer suburbs who is just days away from her marriage to a young man she clearly loves. She rides into the city as a pillion passenger on his motorbike and goes straight to the employment agency who send her to the other side of the city for a day as a cleaner. She then finds herself in the middle of a marital ‘situation’ in which Mozdhe is very much on edge in her large apartment. One of the windows is broken, all the furniture is covered in plastic and there is a general air of chaos. Roohi understands that Mozdhe and her husband Morteza are to go on holiday the next day but Mozdhe seems more concerned that Morteza may be having an affair with Simin, the divorcée next door who runs a beauty salon. Roohi is a ‘good girl’ who finds herself confused by both Mozdhe and Simin. She doesn’t know who to believe when Mozdhe asks her to spy on Simin (who gives Roohi some beauty treatment as a wedding gift). She accepts people for who they say they are, but ends up telling white lies to protect Mozdhe and Simin from each other. The complex plotting then leads Roohi to be forced to stay with Mozdhe’s family all day and to be driven home late in the evening through streets full of fireworks by Morteza.

The four central characters in the film are carefully drawn in the script by Farhadi and Mani Haghighi and beautifully acted. These are complicated individuals and there is no easy and quick identification with them. Mozdhe in particular is a woman on the edge who we both feel for and also want to scold. For me what is most interesting is the way that she treats Roohi. At some moments she seems cold and dismissive giving curt instructions but at other moments she is considerate and appears to want to help the younger woman. Is she a good or bad employer in the eyes of her cleaner/maid (Roohi is asked to carry out a very wide range of tasks)? The almost arrogant confidence of the Iranian middle classes, especially the women, is a feature of these three Farhadi films. The women are relatively wealthy and well-educated but also trapped by certain social conventions. I’m not sure the extent to which Farhadi is being satirical by exposing the behaviour of the Tehran middle classes. It certainly outrages one IMDb commentator who damns the film: “Awful, couldn’t be worse. If we have two or three of such movies per year, that will be more than enough for our society to break down.” (‘m-mirehei’ from Iran) This seems like a very conservative view. From a Western perspective the film seems ‘honest’ in its depiction of the characters.

Taraneh Alidoosti as Roohi

The chador plays an interesting role in the film which I take to be metaphorical. In the opening sequence, when Roohi is on the motorbike, her chador gets caught in the back wheel, throwing her off the bike and jamming the wheel. I found this quite disturbing as in a famous incident in 1927 the dancer Isadora Duncan was killed by her own long scarf when it became tangled in the open spoke wheels of the car in which she was a passenger and her neck was broken. Roohi survives unhurt but the chador is a little torn. Later Mozdhe borrows the chador (without telling Roohi) and wears it in causing a scene outside Morteza’s office. This leaves Roohi ‘exposed’ (though she still has her headscarf) when she has to go and collect Mozdhe’s son from nursery school. I could do with some guidance here but there seems to be a deliberate and provocative reference to the chador and what it means about ‘respectability’ for Iranian women. I won’t ‘spoil’ what happens in these scenes but Mozdhe’s actions both put pressure on Roohi and in some way support her own fight against her husband.

Although the specifics of Iranian society are important to the film’s narrative, there is a strong universal appeal as well and there was a large and appreciative audience for the film in Oslo. There are at least two versions of the film free to view online if you search, one with subtitles and one with German titles taken from German television. But no release yet in the UK! The actors in these films are clearly important stars in Iran – see this fansite for Hedye Tehrani. I confess to having spent a long time in cinemas gazing at beautiful women and I have to say that many of the women featured in Fahradi’s films look just as stunning with their headscarves and long coats as most Hollywood stars in designer outfits. The excellent camerawork by Hossein Jafarian helps of course.