Last week, BBC 4 screened The Past, a film by Asghar Farhadi. He’s the Iranian director, Oscar-nominated for his most recent film The Salesman, who has pledged not to attend the ceremonies even if he gets exemption from Trump’s travel ban. Previously I had seen Farhadi’s celebrated A Separation which, like The Past, takes the story of a seemingly straightforward divorce before developing, by way of a succession of unintended consequences involving a group of equally flawed yet decent characters, into a complex and challenging exploration of what forms moral behaviour.
After watching The Past, I gave A Separation another look. In the film’s final shot the camera lingers on the face of an 11-year old girl, waiting for her to answer a question. Then – cut to black. We ourselves must decide between the contesting perspectives and personalities of a complex story that has been played out before us. Being forced to weigh difficult moral questions is not something that the average Hollywood product requires of the viewer.
A Separation, Farhadi’s fifth feature film, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012 – the first Iranian film to win the accolade. It’s a film that works both as the drama of a middle class couple in Tehran who make the decision to divorce only to find the situation spiralling out of control – and as a ‘state of nation’ allegory of fractures within Iranian society. It’s a remarkable work – morally, psychologically and socially complex – which leads the viewer to feel empathy with all the characters, recognising in each their decency, as well as their errors.
Nader and Simin are a happily married couple with an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. Nader’s father, who has Alzheimer’s also lives with them. After agreeing to leave Iran, Nader has had a change of heart and now feels he must stay for his father’s sake. Simin still wants to leave, they cannot agree, and so they have filed for divorce.
Simin says, ‘But he doesn’t know you!’ ‘No, but I know him, responds Nader, and you can see that both are right. At an impasse, Simin moves to her mother’s apartment, and sues for divorce, although both want to remain married. Nader hires a care-worker to look after his father while he is at work. She is Razieh, who keeps her job a secret from her husband who, as a strict Muslim, would never allow her to work in a man’s household without his wife present. She herself has to take religious advice as to whether she can undress and bathe Nader’s father after he has wet himself.
One day, Nader returns to find his father tied to the bed and Razieh absent. She has a good reason for this, but Nader doesn’t know it and neither do we until much later. He dismisses her from the job, and she accuses him of pushing her downstairs and causing a miscarriage. Her husband, an unemployed shoe-mender quick to anger, brings a case before the Islamic court charging Nader with manslaughter. One of the witnesses is the daughter’s schoolteacher, who has good intentions, but may not be as reliable as it first seems.
Much of the film takes place in the office of an interrogating judge, whose task is to hear evidence and evaluate it. He is presented as a fair man, doing his best to get at the truth from witnesses who testify forcefully in a busy and chaotic office. None of those questioned by the judge have possession of all the facts: neither do those viewing the film. In an unusual opening sequence we have seen Nader and Simin being questioned in their divorce proceedings from the point-of-view of an unseen character – which is also the point of view of the viewer.
Throughout the film Farhadi puts us firmly in the position of having to consider ethical questions. As Joseph Burke remarks in his essay, ‘Rediscovering Morality Through Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation,’ on the Senses of Cinema website:
Farhadi is using his camera and sensibility to show us ourselves. He is inculcating a respect for pluralism and critical thinking. Ultimately, he is making the problems of today’s Iran real, not by simplifying them with easy solutions, but by showing us the unanswered questions that underlie human morality.
At the same time, Farhadi offers the viewer a case study of how class and religion overlay one another in present-day Iran. While Nader and Simin are middle class with a comfortable lifestyle and a relaxed attitude towards religious observance, Razieh and her husband Hoijat are poor, precariously employed, and strict in their religious observance. Farhadi elaborates this ‘separation’ between the two families with great subtlety, primarily through things revealed as the camera tracks through their respective apartments.
A thoughtful essay by Donovan Schaefer for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, ‘A Separation: Religion, Class, Secularism,’ pinpoints some of the things which differentiate the two women:
Both Simin and Razieh wear hijab, for instance, the Persian form of the veil. But the way they style their scarves is radically different, laden with indicators that communicate religious and class-based identity markers. Simin’s hijab is coloured, and it is pushed back to reveal her brightly dyed hair; Razieh’s veil is black and consistently covers all of her hair – and is often covered again by a chador, a second sheet of fabric that cloaks her upper body. Simin prefers to let her body be seen, often wearing western-style jeans. Razieh’s veil is a constant and intimate companion for her, a garment she derives comfort and security from, sometimes holding it closer to her face by pursing it between her lips. She frequently reminds her daughter to put hers back on. Simin is aloof towards hers, even disdainful, and has no interest in policing Termeh’s casual attitude towards it.
Donovan Schaefer also elaborates on how class and religion reinforce the separation between the two families:
Hojjat indignantly accuses Nader in the hearing room of not believing in God, to which Nader shoots back with ‘Because only your type believes in God?’ This exchange (which is actually a common accusation in Iranian society) encapsulates a contemporary myth about the relationship between secularism, urbanization, and globalization: that the rural and working classes are more devout than their middle class and urban counterparts, that religious identity maps cleanly onto class identity. […] Neither of them is ‘pure’ in their encounter with the set of religious symbols and markers that runs through their hands. Like the separation between Simin and Nader, the separation between the two families is predicated on a competing set of priorities, not a straightforward clash of ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular.’
Meanwhile, writing for the New York Movie Review, David Edelstein, summed up the multiple disparities between the two families, and how they both see things in different ways:
Observe the multiple separations between basically decent people: between Nader and Simin; between Nader and Razieh, whom he overworks, underpays, and expects to change his father’s soiled trousers despite her religiously enforced modesty, putting her in multiple untenable positions; and between Razieh and her angry husband Hodjat, who doesn’t know she’s working and wouldn’t let her if he did, although he’s besieged (and, at one point, imprisoned) by creditors. Farhadi has a detached, somewhat clinical style, as if he’s photographing specimens in a terrarium. But they are lively and headstrong specimens, convinced of their own free will. They think they see the whole picture, even if they’re living in disparate worlds.
In the end, Nader prepares to extricate himself from the manslaughter charge by paying blood money – as long as Razieh agrees to swear on the Qur’an that he caused her miscarriage. She refuses to do so, saying she ‘has doubts’ about whether he was actually responsible.
The final scene returns to the divorce court: while the parents sit, separated by a partition, in a waiting room outside, their daughter is asked by the judge to choose which of her two parents she would like to live with. Rather than allow us to hear her answer, Farhadi cuts to the credits. We are required to make our own judgement on the complex ethical questions that have been presented to us in the preceding 90 minutes.
Anthony Lane in the New Yorker:
The miracle of A Separation is that it doesn’t spare any of its characters, nor does it seek to indict them. It is a democratic portrait of a theocratic world.
A Separation: trailer
The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation, was made in France, but shares many similarities with its precursor: both concern a divorce, and in both stories a series of unintended consequences confront the fundamentally decent characters with a crisis and moral challenges. The Past was Farhadi’s first film since the Oscar-winning A Separation, and also the first he had made outside his native Iran, although – like A Separation – it is as much a human story as an Iranian one.
Compared to A Separation, The Past begins with a deceptive calm. Ahmad has returned to Paris to sign divorce papers after returning to his native Iran following a breakdown four years ago. He learns that his wife, Marie (played by Bérénice Bejo), has been living with another man, Samir. Though there is no question that both partners want the divorce, the past cannot be so easily buried, and once again the Iranian director reveals his skill in using multiple perspectives to tell a complex story.
The opening scene at Charles de Gaulle airport echoes the moments in A Separation when the couple in that film were seen separated by some physical barrier: Marie sees Ahmad in arrivals, but they stand separated by a panel of glass, silently mouthing words at each other in vain. Once more, Farhadi will suggest that being face-to-face with another person is no guarantee that you will be understood.
Farhadi sets The Past in the kind of shabby Parisian suburb you rarely see on the big screen. Marie still lives in the house she shared with Ahmad: a rambling, shambolic place hard by some busy railway tracks. When Ahmad arrives, he notices paint tins and brushes in the hallway: old cracks are being covered with fresh paint. Marie is now in a relationship with Samir, a younger guy who runs his own dry-cleaning shop. He has moved in with his seven-year-old son Fouad who joins Marie’s two daughters from another previous relationship. With the arrival of Ahmad, this not so untypical modern family starts to fracture.
In A Separation you might say that you could trace that film’s fracture back to Nadar’s ALzheimer-suffering father; here, in The Past, the cleavages in the story derive from Samir’s wife, who lies in hospital, in a coma, the result of an attempt at suicide. Much like A Separation, the story spirals, as in a thriller, around the question of who is to blame for her attempted suicide. The drama is propelled forward and backward in time as details of past events are revealed and then contradicted, and each character attempts to transfer their sense of guilt onto someone else. Once again Farhadi makes us see how complicated situations can be, and how difficult the task of identifying an objective truth.
In a review of The Past for the Roger Ebert website, Godfrey Cheshire identified two attributes of Farhadi’s film-making:
Farhadi’s way of plotting his stories so that watching them is like witnessing layer after layer of human mystery being peeled away, with the result that we are drawn ever more deeply into sympathizing with the characters. The concomitant attribute could be termed the stories’ multi-perspectivalism, which involves our being induced to see things from the perspective of one character, then another, and so on, rather than only one throughout.
Mention should be made, too, of Farhadi’s extraordinary skill with actors (his background is in theatre, having graduated in Dramatic Arts and Stage Direction from the University of Tehran), both in A Separation and in The Past. Here he directs not only superb performances by the actors portraying the adult protagonists – Berenice Bejo (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) as Marie, Ali Mosaffa as Ahmad and Tahar Rahim as Samir – but also (as in A Separation) shows that he has a gift of drawing nuanced performances from young actors. All three who play the children contribute to remarkable moments in the film, most notably a heart-stopping and emotional confrontation in the Paris metro between Samir and his little boy that’s astonishing in both its intensity and its delicacy.
In her book, Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema, the film critic Tina Hassannia writes:
The Past was Asghar Farhadi’s first film made outside of his home country, a production that reconfirmed his position in the international film scene. Though A Separation made a bigger splash, The Past, a collaboration with European producers, crew, and a big-name cast, was a sign that the filmmaker was ready and capable to work outside of his comfort zone. The film also affirmed that, despite the cultural specificity of his previous work, Farhadi could adapt his dramatist style for any setting – even a city that had been represented in cinema countless times: Paris, France.
Elsewhere, Hassannia discusses the extent to which Farhadi’s films can be judged as narrowly Iranian in their concerns:
Farhadi did believe that following the success of A Separation, too many critics mistakenly called the film a comprehensive cross-section of how Iranian society operates. One of the great accomplishments of that film is how it both ties into specific cultural details and still manages to consistently maintain a universal essence that appeals to cinephiles the world over. With The Past, Farhadi brings an Iranian element into a French setting, and though the script ensures a degree of obvious cultural markers— Ahmad’s way of teaching Marie’s (Bérénice Bejo) young daughters Farsi and his making of a traditional meal, ghormeh sabzi – the experience of the diaspora is relatable to anyone who’s moved abroad, Iranian or not.
In that powerful scene in the metro station, Fouad asks his father why his mother is being kept alive in the hospital. Samir can’t be sure: ‘We don’t know if she wants to live like that or if she wants to die.’ The little boy has no doubts: ‘She wanted to die,’ Fouad says decisively. ‘It’s why she killed herself.’ But, in the film’s final scene, Samir visits his wife in hospital with a selection of perfumes, which the doctors think may possibly evoke a response. He sprays on some of his cologne and leans over her, asking her to squeeze his hand if she can smell it. A tear runs down her face and he looks down at her hand, which is holding his.
The Past: trailer
At this year’s Oscars, Farhadi’s latest film The Salesman is shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Because of Trump’s executive order on immigration, the director probably won’t be attending the ceremony. However, on that day, 26 February, London mayor Sadiq Khan is organising the transformation of Trafalgar Square into London’s biggest open-air cinema for the first UK showing of Asghar Farhadi’s drama, hours before the Oscars are handed out in Hollywood.
Farhadi told the Guardian that the Trafalgar Square screening had great symbolic value:
The gathering of the audience around The Salesman in this famous London square is symbolic of unity against the division and separation of people. I offer my warmest thanks to the mayor of London and the cinema community for this generous initiative. I welcome and appreciate this invaluable show of solidarity.
As for me, I look forward with anticipation to seeing his new film – as well as catching up with his earlier films (A Separation was his fifth film – preceded by Dancing in the Dust (2003), The Beautiful City (2004), Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and About Elly (2009)).
- A Separation: review (Guardian)
- A Separation: review (New Yorker)
- Inside Iran: What life is really like in Tehran: article by Patrick Cockburn written in 2010, around the time A Separation was being shot (Independent)
- The Past: review (Roger Ebert.com)
- No One Is Blameless: review of The Past (New York Review of Books)
- The Past, film review: A game of unhappy families (Independent)
- The Past review: a whirlwind of warring emotions (Mark Kermode, Observer)