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Asghar Farhadi: The master of complex plots

Asghar Farhadi's Golden Globe win has put Iranian cinema in the limelight. Ahram Online explores the themes of his remarkable films

Menna Taher, Wednesday 1 Feb 2012
A Separation
A Separation
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A looming question in artistic circles is the amount of censorship that could be inflicted by an Islamist-led parliament. In many discussions, Iranian cinema pops up, leading to questions of how Iranian filmmakers adapt in an atmosphere of invasion social conditioning.

However, despite the repressive measures deployed against Iranian filmmakers, Iranian cinema is now in the spotlight with Asghar Farhadi gaining worldwide recognition for his film A Separation, for which he has won a Golden Globe and the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. In this year’s Oscars race, it is one of the biggest contenders.

Farhadi, like his contemporaries Panahi and Kioarstami, does not feed off Western stereotypes of Iranians. He treads lightly on Iran’s social issues; they are never the main issues in the film, they are merely a backdrop and sometimes a catalyst to his domestic dramas.

Classicism and the domination of religion in one’s personal affairs, and even decision-making, are two topics very evident in his last film, A Separation, while the issue of sexism — where a woman’s blood money costs less than a man’s — is seen in Beautiful City.

However, such issues are tackled with complexity and do not offer easy straightforward answers.

His four films — A Separation, About Elly, Fireworks Wednesdays and Beautiful City — pose questions relating to morality in its abstract sense. Even after watching the films and discussing them, the viewer is still filled with questions and doubts.

Each character faces an internal dilemma and slowly reveals secrets throughout the film. With the dominance of deception and lies, the viewer’s outlook on the characters is constantly challenged.

Coming from a theatrical background with influences like Chekhov, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter, Farhadi has quite mastered the art of writing dialogue. He knows quite well when to reveal what information and how it would affect the plot.

Yet his characters deliver their lines with the utmost natural air, perhaps which could go back to Farhadi’s interest in the works of Pinter, as his master’s thesis was on silence and pauses and their meanings in the works of the Nobel Prize-winning English playwright.

The high level of the actor’s familiarity with the characters is also quite evident. He explains in his interview with Headlines magazine the reason behind the depth of his characters.

“In About Elly, they would improvise on scenes that were not actually part of the film. Elly and her fiancée never actually meet in the film, they were never seen together, but a lot of improvisation was done to establish their relationship so that when they would talk about one another, there was a real relationship to refer to,” he explained to the interviewer.

As one can trace a thread in his work, and a number of recurrent themes, like the question of leaving Iran or not, domestic help in middle class households, marital problems and children caught in-between, as well as deception, the films still cross a diverse range of stories and emotions.

In an interview with Filmmaker, a magazine of independent film, Farhadi says, “Some of these ideas are common in most of the works I’ve done. With each film I have tried to get closer to such ideas and treat them through different and various angles. Maybe that’s why the films got more complicated from Beautiful City and A Separation.”

In A Separation, a couple faces a dilemma as the wife, Simin, wants to leave Iran so her daughter would be raised elsewhere, while her husband, Nader, wants to stay and take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimers.

As problems occur with Razieh, who comes to help around the house, the two families, one from the poorer side of town and another from a more well-to-do background, have to face one another in court.

The class disparity does play a role in the conflict but not entirely. As the plot thickens one starts sympathising with all and none except for the two children, who are the main victims in the film.

However, at the end of the film, despite the trouble that all parties are facing, one can see the concern most obvious on Razieh’s face, and it seems that class difference does play a major role. Her weary face contrasts the tensed face of Simin, and one can see that despite the common calamity, it is one party that would still suffer more.

In the film, both the adolescent girl, Termeh, the daughter of Nader and Simin, and the child, who is the daughter of Razieh, have acted superbly. The child’s expressive facial expressions are one of the film’s highlights, while Termeh’s silence has great depth and power.

The relationship between the two girls is also quite interesting, as they are both outside of the conflict and they play with one another. But one can see the influence of the cracked relationship between their families towards the end.

In Fireworks Wednesdays, the idea of travel abroad versus life in Iran also appears in the film, but the main plot revolves around a broken marriage and a highly suspecting wife.

However, in this film, unlike A Separation, it is Rouhi, the domestic help, who is the most balanced. Still young, Rouhi is madly in love with her fiancée and is unfamiliar with marital complexities.

Throughout the day she plays the role of the outside onlooker on a marriage in disintegration. Though keeping her distance, she interferes briefly and keeps a close eye on the core of the conflict.

Farhadi has a well-developed vision of characters and plot, yet leaves the required space for the viewer to ponder and draw conclusions. It is most evident in About Elly.

About Elly is perhaps the most depressive and intense of the four films and includes the highest level of mystery. The film starts out with a trip by friends who are trying to hook up the shy and quiet Elly with their newly-divorced friend who has arrived from Germany.

As Elly suddenly disappears, stories start to unravel slowly. The character of Elly is constructed through the viewer’s own surmises.

In Beautiful City, one of his early films, Farhadi had still not mastered the art of writing complex plots, with at many times the conversation lagging and not as sharp as in with his following works.

Beautiful City starts with a surprise birthday in a prison for a boy who has just turned 18. Instead of celebrating, he starts to vomit and it is revealed that he has turned the legal age to be executed.

The film delves into questions regarding capital punishment and the meaning of retribution. In this film, the sheikh plays quite an interesting role. Instead of being the preacher, he plays a more Socratic role as he gives the character the opposing viewpoint of theirs, while using verses of the Quran.

Despite Farhadi’s success and the high quality of Iranian cinema as a whole, it is still a very tough job for a filmmaker in Iran. A Separation had to be halted in shooting after the filmmaker’s statement, delivered at a film festival, on the suppression of artists. Only after international uproar did the shooting resume. 

Farhadi also revealed in one interview that A Separation was privately funded because otherwise there would have been problems with censorship, as the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance would have had to give its approval.

Now the Iranian film scene is in upheaval, especially after closing down the House of Cinema, the country's main film industry guild. On 31 January, close to 2,000 members of Iran’s film community wrote a petition condemning the move.

Signatories included Leila Hatami, who played Simin in A Separation.

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