In what’s turning out to be a very strong year for the Cannes Competition, it’s hard to pick a front-runner at the festival’s midway point. As many critics rate the chances of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s “Like Father, Like Son” (not least because of a family-ties dynamic many assume will appeal to Jury president Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities) they also rate highly previous Cannes winners the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis." But one man sure to be in the fray for the Palme d’Or this weekend is Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi with “The Past.”
Nicole Kidman reputedly emerged from the film in tears and while the reception for Farhadi’s sixth feature appears more muted than the nearly unanimous praise that greeted “A Separation,” reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. As the follow-up to that Oscar-winning predecessor, “The Past” is a similarly complex and precisely crafted drama in which Frenchwoman Marie (Berenice Bejo) opens a Pandora’s box of dark secrets in the house she shares with her moody teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), new partner Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son when her Iranian husband (Ali Mosaffa) arrives to finalize their divorce. Intricately woven and perceptively acted, “The Past”’s suspenseful narrative is filled with tiny, unexpected shocks that change your perception of each character and their relationship to the others, all of them handled and revealed with masterful authority by Farhadi.
Matt Mueller: "The Past" marks your Cannes debut. Do you see this festival as the pinnacle of artistic acceptance?
Asghar Farhadi: I cannot be as certain as that. It’s an important event worldwide because people have their attention on it. But this does not mean that if a film is not in this festival, it has less value.
Why did you want to continue exploring themes of fractured and fracturing families after “A Separation”?
It seems like I have some questions inside me, part of it I’m aware of, part I’m unaware of, and I ask these questions by writing these stories. When I base a story on a family it gives me a large possibility. Spectators all over the world have experience of families so this brings them one step closer to my films.
Although the story and characters are French, could "The Past"’s themes have been explored as powerfully if you’d made the film in Iran?
The difference is that in our culture, people in general rarely express themselves, but here they do. It was possible, but it would have been another film. It would have lost many things if it had been based in Iran; the lifestyles of the characters would have been very different. The emotions such as love, guilt, hate and responsibility are similar; the ways of expressing them are different in the two cultures.
When you’re directing actors, how specific do you get with them in terms of how they portray their characters?
It’s really difficult for me to say, because I have no outside image of myself when I’m directing. I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes when I see behind the scenes [footage], I’m surprised by the things that I’m doing. I want all the details that are in the script to be fulfilled with precision, but I give the actors this liberty and tell them that if they don’t believe something they should tell me.
Tahar kept asking me in the rehearsals why Samir was so calm with this man, Ahmad, in his house. He wanted to be more aggressive. I didn’t say, “Do as I say”; instead, I tried to organize rehearsals between the two men so they could get to know each other more. One day, Tahar said, “I have pity for Ahmad. I cannot treat him badly because he is, like me, in difficulty.” It took three weeks to get this result and I gained what I sought from him, but I gave him the liberty to arrive there on his own.
Did Berenice ever express concern that Marie might come across as too unsympathetic?
The character she plays is very different from Berenice in her own life. She used to say sometimes, “If I was in Marie’s place, I wouldn’t do the same.” She needed time to take this distance between her and the character, and become one with her. When she came to shoot the film, she believed that everything the character did is what she would have done herself.
How has the success of "A Separation" changed your life as a filmmaker or a person?
It didn’t change my personal life at all. My relations with the good people in my life are the same. But it gave me the possibility to gain a much bigger audience all over the world, and I don’t encounter financial problems to make a film.
Is "The Past" the start of a career making films outside of Iran?
It will depend on the stories that comes to me. I won’t decide to go make a film in a country and then find a story; I will wait for the story to tell me where to go.