If you give an answer to your viewer, your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it. In fact, your film will continue inside the viewer. — Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012 (the first Iranian film to ever be so honored) was an international sensation. It was one of those seismic cinematic events that really can’t be anticipated or even planned for by hopeful publicists. A story about a well-to-do Iranian couple, on the verge of divorce, who get embroiled in a scandal involving a nurse they hired to take care of a family member with Alzheimer’s. You know. It doesn’t scream “worldwide sensation.” I saw A Separation at the New York Film Festival in 2011 and it knocked me flat. I felt like I was watching a long-lost play by Ibsen. It had that same epic scope, it had that sense of tragic inevitability, and meticulous care is given to the setting up of the inciting event and all that follows. The people were all totally human-sized, flawed, no villains. You can’t point the finger at where this thing went wrong. It all depends on where you stand. And that’s a very big deal for Asghar Farhadi. Truth, and one’s sense of it, depends on where you stand. This is anathema to those who prefer morality to come in black-and-white shades: i.e. fundamentalists (of any religion or political stance). The relativity of truth is evident on the most corporeal level: If you’re standing in front of me, and blocking an object from my view, then I can say, “No, I don’t see that object behind you” – even if I know it’s there. From where I stand, at that moment, I can’t see that object, and therefore no, it’s not there for me. If you move out of the way, then yes, I can see the object and now we both are looking at the same thing. But still: no two people ever see the same thing, not really. Any cop on the beat, interviewing multiple witnesses of the same event, will tell you that.
Asghar Farhadi takes that small philosophically-rich situation and expands it out into the human experience.
In A Separation there are four “actors” in the drama that unfolds. Five, including the young daughter. There were only two witnesses to the actual event. Nobody can agree on what actually went down. But something did go down, and someone must be to blame. But who? Farhadi is patient with these questions, he leaves no stone unturned, and his films often include scenes of relentless interrogation. Not police interrogation, but characters interrogating one another, or interrogating themselves, re-living the moment where things went wrong, trying to piece it together into a coherent narrative. This takes time. Farhadi has the time. It is why his films feel so relentless.
These moral and ethical issues – what does “blame” mean, what does “guilt” mean, should I feel guilty, and if so, why? What was my role in this event? What is my responsibility? These insistent questions, nagging away at the center of each of his films, end up creating a deeply moral universe, a universe where ethics really matter, where goodness really has resonance – because everyone is trying to be good, everyone is doing their best … and when bad things go down, is it random? What does responsibility mean? And if someone takes responsibility, then what? In the works of Ibsen, the small circle of domestic life was put on top of an ever-increasing flame. The pressures of the larger society impact human beings in their small everyday lives. When Nora walks out the door at the end of A Doll’s House, it is not Nora who is to blame (although audiences at the time rioted in outrage). It is the society in which she lives, it is the society which created her, that is to blame. And Torvald isn’t off the hook either. He, too, is a victim of the same society. Will he be able to look at his role in these events? At how he contributed to the situation? Nora’s actions didn’t occur in a vacuum. Society made her helpless, society had a vested interest in keeping women docile, uneducated, and child-like. Slaves. If you point the finger at Nora, you point the finger at yourselves.
This is tough grown-up stuff, and it’s the stuff of Farhadi’s films, too. His films deal with private domestic life, friends and family and parenting and parents and divorce. But all of these things are impacted by the society at large. In the opening scene in A Separation, a married couple talk to a magistrate about getting a divorce. The wife wants to take the daughter away to live abroad. The husband will not grant her a divorce because that means he will never see his daughter again. And he can’t leave Iran with his family because his father has Alzheimer’s and he has to care for him. The issue is not that the couple has fallen out of love with each other. They clearly still love each other. But the wife does not want to raise her daughter in Iran. The reasons why are so obvious that the wife feels no obligation to put it into words. So. There you have it. Farhadi, without being obvious or speechifying, indicts the society at large for all of the events that follow. He’s subtle about it (for censorship issues, for sure, but also because it’s not his main interest: his main interest is human beings and how they behave during a crisis), but the critique is clear.
I was just talking with my friend Farran about Farhadi the other day, when we met up at the screening for About Elly. The hip thing to do is to assume that all human beings are repulsive, selfish, and corrupt. So much of cinema emerges from that nihilistic attitude. Maybe it seems cooler to look at things that way than to assume the far more difficult attitude that everyone is, honestly, doing their best. Farhadi assumes that everyone is doing their best, and sometimes their best sucks, that’s true, but that does not negate the fact that it represents their best. Also: someone doing their best may seem like a villain to you because that person’s “best” means that you will lose. You see? How it looks depends on where you stand. When someone wins, it means that somebody else loses. That’s life. That’s the difficulty of it. It’s no big deal on a soccer field or a basketball court, but in the realm of human life, the stakes could not be higher.
My first encounter with Farhadi’s work was Fireworks Wednesday, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007 (my review here). It starred Taraneh Alidootsi, a lovely actress, and Hedye Tehrani (one of my favorites, an actress I’ve written a lot about). It told the story of a lower-class traditional girl hired to be a housekeeper for an upscale family.
That upscale family is in the process of disintegrating, and it’s ugly: the husband and wife fight constantly, their little boy is caught in the middle, and there’s all this intrigue in the apartment building because the wife suspects the husband of cheating. The wife decides to use the chador-wearing housekeeper as a pawn in the ongoing battle with the husband. Housekeeper is intimidated by the wealth, by the women who pin scarves lightly on the backs of their heads, letting their hair show free … she’s not sure what to make of all of it. It’s a culture-clash, a class-clash – something Farhadi never gets sick of examining and he does so in really subtle and innovative ways.
The housekeeper is not a prude or a fundamentalist (the film opens with her and her boyfriend riding around the mountains on a motorcycle and wrestling in a snow bank together.). But she seems that way to the more “liberal” wealthy people she encounters during the course of the film. All they see is the full chador (and the fact that she does not wax her eyebrows. Everyone comments on it.)
And the rich wife is not a silly frivolous woman, although she seems that way to people who hold more traditional values. In fact, she is a depressive paranoiac. Her fashionable sister, wearing Ugg boots and a blue silk scarf pinned on top of her luxurious hair, says to her, “You look like shit. What is happening to you? You’re letting yourself go.” The wife spends her days listening through walls, weeping in the bathroom, treating her son roughly, and unable to see that she shouldn’t use her maid as a go-between in her game of gossip and lies and innuendos. The chador is symbolic. It announces I am religious, and I am working-class-poor to the snootier residents of the gated apartment building. The wife takes one look at the black-veiled creature huddled in her doorway and immediately under-estimates this girl: Well, she’s clearly religious and working-class, therefore she’s probably not too smart and I can just use her to get back at my husband.
And so it goes. How we see each other, how we interpret each other, how we underestimate each other and dismiss one another … it’s all there. I am sure there are subtleties I am missing, since I am not from Iran, but all of that I got. It’s a fine film. Unfortunately, it’s not streaming anywhere, and it’s also not listed on Netflix. You can buy a copy though, through Amazon, if you would like to see it.
Farhadi followed up Fireworks Wednesday with About Elly, which got a brief release, but has never been seen again. It has not been rent-able. It has not been purchase-able, either. It has been bound up in “rights issues” (according to the press notes). There were times I felt desperate to get my hands on a copy. I have been dying to see it, especially in the wake of A Separation and Farhadi’s film after that, The Past (a good film, showing the concerns now associated with Farhadi: divorce, love, parenting, Iran-vs.-elsewhere, culture/class clash). Suddenly, word on the street was: Farhadi’s film About Elly was finally released from its Limbo and getting an international release in a new 35mm restoration! Hooray! About Elly is playing at the Film Forum for a couple of weeks, starting April 8.
I went to a press screening a couple of days ago. I went into it knowing only that it was directed by Farhadi, starred Taraneh Alidootsi (who was the housekeeper in Fireworks Wednesday), as well as Peyman Moaadi, who was so unbelievable in A Separation (and many other films, he’s so talented). It also starred Golshifteh Farahani, the first Iranian actor since the Revolution in 1979 to leave and appear in a major Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies). I knew of Farahani because of her unforgettable small performance in Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon (which also starred the aforementioned Hedye Tehrani). (All of these women, by the way, every single one of them, appear in Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, which is like a Who’s Who of Iranian actresses.) Shahab Hosseini, who was so amazing in A Separation as the furious husband of the nurse who comes to care for Alzheimer’s patient, is also in About Elly (and, to be completely unprofessional for a second, hubba-hubba. Wow.). About Elly is an ensemble piece, with a sort of Big Chill structure, and obvious shades of Antonioni’s L’Avventurra. A group of friends come together for a holiday weekend. Mani Haghighi plays Amir (he co-wrote Fireworks Wednesday with Farhadi). Merila Zare’i plays Shohreh, and she, too, was in A Separation (as well as Shirin). Iranian cinema is a small world. Watching it is like going to a local repertory theatre company, where you see the same people over and over again, but in different roles and functions.
Now about About Elly.
The great David Bordwell said of the film: “A masterpiece. The less you know in advance, the better.”
It’s really the way to go. So I’ll just talk about the set-up and the acting and other things, leaving as much of the plot out as possible (although the L’Avventura nod should give you some idea of where it is going).
So do not read further if you want to go into it a blank slate. I avoid spoilers, but even saying this much may be too much.
A group of friends, who knew each other from university (law school), go for a weekend on the coast. The opening scene shows Sepideh (Farahani) leaning out the window of her car, as it careens through a tunnel, screaming and laughing at the top of her lungs. Leaving Tehran brings freedom, a chance to breathe. The friends are piled in their various cars, screaming and laughing as they drive along the highway. Everyone is coupled up: It’s Sepideh and her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi). Shohreh (Merila Zare’i) and her husband Peyman (Peyman Moaadi). There’s Nazy (Ra’na Azadivar) and her husband Manoochehr (Ahmad Mehranfar). The various couples have brought their children, three in all, ages about 3 to 8. Tagging along is an old friend from university, closest to Sepideh, a guy named Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has been living abroad in Germany. He just got divorced.
Sepideh, playing matchmaker, thinks that Ahmad might really like Elly (Taraneh Aldootsi), who is her daughter’s 2nd grade teacher. Sepideh invites Elly to join them on their weekend vacation. The various friends, and Sepideh’s husband, are wary about this. “We don’t know her, why do you always do this, Sepideh, why are you putting Ahmad in this awkward position? Can we be ourselves around this girl? We want to relax.” (There are multiple levels to this. First: This is a very close-knit group. Having a stranger come with puts a crimp in their style. Second: It’s awkward because if Ahmad did want to flirt with Elly, he would have to deal with the snickering group of friends standing on the other side of the room, watching and laughing. Which is basically what happens. And Third: Ahmad and his friends come from the modern liberal section of Iranian society. Elly appears to come from the lower-class (i.e. more fundamentalist) social strata. This tension also comes into play in Farhadi’s other films. When these two layers of society meet, things have a tendency to explode.
The group take over a big rambling house on the seashore, and promptly start to have fun. Volleyball, charades, swimming, cooking, laughter. But there’s something up with Elly. She says she can only stay for one night. She tells Ahmad that her mother has a heart condition. Sepideh, determined to follow her match-making through, laughingly refuses Elly’s request to be taken to the bus station. What’s one more night? Come on, relax, isn’t Ahmad handsome, can’t we all just have fun?
And then something terrible happens. It is filmed in such a visceral style that it was unbearable. The event felt like it lasted 20 minutes onscreen. And never once does Farhadi lose track of the clarity of his visuals: who is where, what each person is doing, where they are going, their diverse trajectories. There are 8 people onscreen, it is utter chaos, and you never lose your bearings as a viewer. Not to be tried by amateurs. The sequence is masterful.
Once the event ends, the real troubles begins. And then come the interrogations, a familiar device used in every Farhadi film: the questioning, the going-over of things, everyone turning into a detective trying to unearth motivation and what really happened. Who is to blame? Should we tell the truth? Did we all see the same thing though? Should we leave out parts of the truth because of these very valid societal reasons? Tellingly, and not surprisingly, the group begins to turn on one another. “Yes, well if you had not such and such …” “I was just trying to such and such …” Problems that may seem benign take on greater weight. In the middle of the crisis, Shohreh says to her husband, “Stop using that tone of voice with me.” He’s furious: “At a time like this, what matters what tone of voice I use?” “It matters.”
A crisis does not always bring people together. It can drive people apart.
Fissures open up. The abyss widens.
That driving-apart of people proceeds on almost an inevitable course. It’s like a car crash, or an explosion: chaotic in the moment, and yet behaving with the utmost predictability. The car continues to careen forward, bodies flailing around inside, and the event cannot be stopped. Until it stops of its own accord. This is what Farhadi presents like no other filmmaker working today. The sheer momentum of catastrophe.
The sense of catastrophe is so strong, but Farhadi’s film-making style remains sure and steady and certain.
I was thinking about it so much afterwards. What is it that sets Farhadi apart? I would say that one of the things is his patience. This is where he is in line with Ibsen, who carefully and meticulously set up the extenuating circumstances of his plays: here are the people, here is what they do for a living, here is their world, here is how they operate in “peaceful times.” The set-up is careful and patient. We need all of it. We need all that information given to us, so that when the crisis comes, we can see the edifice cracking, the building falling once the structure loses its stability. It’s not enough to show people laughing, and then show them experiencing some tragedy. That’s lazy. You must be patient and understand the importance of details, of behavior, of the “tells” in characters’ emotional lives, so that when the crisis does come, you become a collaborator. You, too, go into the interrogation room atmosphere of the film. Who is at fault here? Where does the fault start? Farhadi shows all sides. It’s brutal. And as the film moves on, step by step, entire lives start to unravel. The transformation in the characters from start to finish is terrifying (the acting is magnificent).
In order to get the payoff of your catharsis of “terror and pity”, you have to have the patience to set up what needs to be set up. There are no short-cuts. Farhadi is a psychologist of the highest order. He cares deeply about things like responsibility and ethics, moral compasses and sense of truth, and he is also courageous enough to know that all of these things go through different prisms. Who is “responsible” depends on how you look at it. At one point in About Elly, one character says, “From where he stands, though, everything we have done is wrong.”
You cannot argue with that. But the best part is, you do argue. Farhadi makes you argue. Look back at that quote that starts off this post. Farhadi’s films, when they end, are really the beginning of a conversation. You cannot leave one of his films and be like, “That was good – wanna grab some tacos?” You have to stand on the sidewalk and talk about it. That’s what Farran and I did after the screening. “Didn’t you think that Sepideh maybe so and so?” “I definitely think that Elly was coming from this such and such …” “I wonder, though, if maybe that group of people were blah blah?” And on and on. This happened after seeing A Separation too. After my mother finally saw it, we had a conversation that lasted probably 45 minutes about it. Not about the plot, but about … what it meant, what it showed.
I find myself arguing with Farhadi’s films. I argue with Fireworks Wednesday. I argue with A Separation. I want people to find a way out of their trouble! If only she had said this … If only they had talked about this moment … if only so-and-so had been a little bit more clear … This arguing/questioning response is one of the reasons why Farhadi is such a master, and why his films can be such harrowing experiences.
About Elly is up there with A Separation in its sense of disaster, emotional catastrophe, and dealing with the fallout. It’s not the catastrophe that matters so much: it’s how we deal with the aftermath that shows us who we are. The film has not yet let me go, and I saw it four days ago. I would put it on par with A Separation, in terms of what it achieves, and I do not say that lightly. Fireworks Wednesday is wonderful, but it feels “minor”, at least in comparison to A Separation (everything feels minor compared to A Separation, so maybe that’s not fair).
So after all these years of dying to see About Elly … and then to discover that it is AS “major” as A Separation …
Thrilling. I tell you, it’s thrilling.
Farhadi is one of the best things going right now. It’s so great, too, that he is still relatively young. So much to look forward to!