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Posts Tagged ‘Asghar Farhadi’

We have clearly reached that point in the year when the major players are starting to bring out their big films, and the etiquette of this situation (influenced, naturally, by enlightened self-interest) means that there’s only likely to be one substantial release in any given week. If, like my regular co-cinema-goer Olinka, you are not the kind of person who enjoys everyday stories of photonic blasts and cats with unusual faculties, this can leave you short of things to go and see, down the local multiplex at least.

So it was that we reconvened for this week’s trip at our local sort-of-an-art-house cinema, to check out Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (título en español: Todos lo Saben). I’d seen a couple of Farhadi’s earlier movies and was fairly sure this would be a worthwhile investment of time, while the fact the promotional blurb for the film indicated it contained elements from the thriller genre meant it would probably be up Olinka’s alley. Vamanos!

Few directors working in the world today are quite as feted as Asghar Farhadi, whose achievements are all the more remarkable given his background is in Iran, not noted as one of the world’s great film-making nations. For his last few films he has opted to work more internationally, and Everybody Knows continues this trend, being set in Spain and made in Spanish. The themes are universal, though.

As the film begins a large extended family are gathering for a wedding in a small town somewhere in rural Spain. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has just flown in from Argentina with her two children; her wealthy husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) has been unable to accompany her. The reunion with her parents, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and so on is a happy one, as is another meeting with her old and close friend Paco (Javier Bardem). It seems like there is a strong chance of a very good time being had by all.

This proves not to be the case when Laura’s teenage daughter (Carla Campra), who shows some signs of being a spirited wild child, disappears in the evening following the wedding. To Laura’s horror, she receives a ransom demand by text, along with the instruction not to tell the police – but, rather to her bemusement, the same message is sent to Paco and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). What’s going on? Is all quite as it seems?

As usual with Farhadi, the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director can build an exploration of characters and relationships. Soon enough things long unspoken of are bubbling unpleasantly to the surface, tensions within the family are rising, and apparently strong relationships are placed under severe strain…

So, when the film was finished we emerged from the auditorium and headed back into the city centre and our respective bus stops. Olinka was showing signs, I could tell, of not being entirely satisfied.

‘What have we just watched?’

I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question or not.

‘No, really, what have I just spent two hours of my life watching?’

‘You didn’t like it.’

‘I just found it really frustrating. Was it supposed to be a drama, or a psychological thriller, or what?’

‘Well, I suppose there were elements of a thriller to it, but what you have to remember with Farhadi is that the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director-‘

‘You’ve already said that.’

‘Sorry.’

‘The thing is, if that was a thriller, it was really slow and lacking in incident, and if it was a drama, it was psychologically simplistic, with no real depth to it and no real message.’

‘I’m sorry you didn’t like it…’

‘Oh, no, there were things I enjoyed about it.’

‘Like what?’

‘I liked the decor in the houses – the furniture, and the wallpaper, and the little trinkets they had everywhere.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose that’s something.’

Not having Olinka’s ability to multitask, I cannot speak with much authority about the quality of the interior design in Everybody Knows, but I can kind of see where she’s coming from in her criticism of the film. The basic structure of the piece – a group of people come together, only for an unexpected event to expose the underlying tensions between them – is the same as that in other Farhadi films like About Elly…, which I suppose could leave the director open to accusations that he’s simply repeating himself.

Certainly, this is a meaty, actor’s drama, which may explain why he has managed to attract two of the biggest names in Spanish cinema to headline the movie. It almost goes without saying that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both extremely good in this film, giving excellent and intelligent performances – this is the kind of story where you see many facets of the characters, and it really demands performers of this kind of calibre.

Of course, a potential downside of this kind of structure is that it does take a while for the story to unfold – there’s a long first act establishing all the characters and their various relationships (I must confess to never being 100% sure about exactly how everyone was related to each other), setting the table before the rest of the plot proceeds to kick it over. The issue, if indeed it is an issue, is that the table-kicking-over happens at an equally leisurely pace.

There was some subdued muttering from Olinka along the lines of ‘what are these people doing?’ when the main characters responded to the kidnap of a girl by, well, standing around and talking a lot. I didn’t personally have as much of an issue with this, but as the film went on I did find the succession of lengthy scenes with characters sitting or standing around articulating their personal baggage or talking about their unfinished emotional business to be a little bit draining (full disclosure: I think I dozed off at one point (blame jet lag from the Manhattan trip), and was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of a character who’d previously been in Argentina).

The drama of the piece is, shall we say, sliced quite thick, and the only thing that keeps me from describing Everybody Knows as a ripe old melodrama is the fact that it is just a bit too well-written and well-performed for this to be entirely fair. The lack of conventional closure to the story will probably just annoy some viewers, though, not without reason. In the end this isn’t really a thriller and shows no signs of wanting to be – but if you enjoy chunky character-based dramas that take their time to unfold their story, the quality of the performances and script mean this will probably be a fairly satisfying experience for you.

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Five or six years ago, I was startled to see that the official start of Big Summer Movie season had crept forward to the start of May, when – back before the coming of Day and Date releasing – it always used to be no earlier than June. Now, it seems that the year’s really big popcorn blockbusters are starting to appear as early as the back end of March. You might think that this was bad news, should you be the kind of person disinterested in the collected oeuvre of Stan Lee or any kind of film predicated on a massive special-effects investment.

I would tend to disagree, as the more big movies that come out to dominate the multiplexes, the more cover they provide for the smaller independent cinemas to indulge in counter-programming – showing films for a different audience. (Of course, if you don’t live near a smaller independent cinema, you are basically stuffed, but that’s the modern world we have made for ourselves.) Currently reaping the counter-programming dividend is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (or, in the versione originale, Le Passe).

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Asghar Farhadi is most celebrated for a series of Iran-based films, and long-term readers may recall the ‘stroke a bandicoot’ campaign I launched after seeing his 2009 movie About Elly…. The Past is set in a more familiar context, but it’s another acutely-observed human drama.

Central to the story is Marie, played by Berenice Bejo (who’s most famous for The Artist), a Parisian woman whose life is largely dominated by her chaotic domestic situation: she shares her home with two daughters from a long-since-concluded relationship, and the son of the man whose child she is carrying and who she intends to marry. He is Samir (Tahar Rahim), an average sort of guy. However, their relationship has an awkward, never-to-be-discussed issue at its centre, something which threatens to destroy Marie’s relationship with her hostile elder daughter (Pauline Burlet).

Our route into this complex, intimate situation is to see it through the eyes of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man to whom Marie is still technically married. He’s in town to finalise their divorce, but while catching up with his stepchildren finds himself sucked into the tensions between them and their mother’s intended new husband.

So, no jetpacks, no biblical apocalypses, and no musical numbers in this one, then (there isn’t even any non-diegetic music, which appears to be something of a Farhadi trademark). What there is is a forensically-precise examination of the intersections and interdependencies of a handful of lives, and the way in which the regrets and mistakes of the past can act as a dreadful drag-anchor on the hopes of the present and future.

The subtleties and nuances of the central situation are presented with great skill, and, it seemed to me, forethought: for example, the fact that Ali is not the actual father of any of the children he’s helped to raise is significant, giving him a sense of binding responsibility towards them but crucially barring him from having any real authority. His well-intentioned efforts to help resolve the situation are arguably counter-productive, but it seemed to me that one of the themes of the film is that everyone is locked in a sort of emotional stasis, unable to make any progression or find any sort of resolution – increasingly, the key figure in the story becomes Samir’s wife, who is comatose and unable to provide anyone with the answers they need (the exact reasons for this are, of course, a crucial plot point).

If you were of a certain sort of disposition I expect you could make a case that The Past is implicitly a film criticising the collapse of the nuclear family as a social unit – Marie and Samir are both onto their second or third relationships, and so on – I didn’t get any sense of intention in this respect from the film. It’s too personal and particular for that – Farhadi just seems to be interested in these people, in this situation, rather than making general social or political points.

You could, I suppose, ask what the point of a film like this is – it’s not attempting to push a point of view or send a message, except in the vaguest way. Well, it certainly has value as a piece of art for its own sake – the performances of Bejo and Mosaffa in particular are wonderful, subtle things, and Burlet is also very good. Farhadi’s direction is undertstated to the point of being invisible, but every key moment of the story, every emotion is captured.

I have to say that at over two hours long The Past really outstays its welcome by at least fifteen minutes, and the narrative has an odd, lumpy sort of structure – what looks like it’s going to be a film about Ahmad’s relationship with Marie and the children turns into one trying to uncover the truth about Samir’s ex-wife and her condition, in which Ahmad is a very peripheral character. The delicate exposure of layers of character and plot involved is very well done, but I think the film would have benefited had they found a way to get to this stuff rather earlier.

Still, this is a thoughtful, humane drama made for intelligent adults, not afraid to contemplate the complexities of modern life, even if it is naturally reluctant to offer any easy answers to the questions it discovers. Perhaps not quite as impressive as Asghar Farhadi’s Persian-language films, but still a viable alternative for anyone looking for a worthwhile trip to Arthouseville.

 

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I like to think that I know about cinema, but it sometimes seems to me that for me to claim knowledge of films puts me in the same position as someone claiming to know about animals whose experience is almost wholly limited to cats and dogs and rabbits – we live in a world of bandicoots and martens and tuataras and dolphins and caecilians, after all, and the same world contains films from India and Denmark and Venezuela, none of which I’ve ever properly sat down to watch. Only the tiniest handful ever make it onto a UK cinema screen, and these are hardly a representative sample, being usually especially acclaimed and significant pieces of work.

Such seems to be the case with Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly…, an Iranian film currently enjoying a sporadic release around the arthouses of the UK. This is a movie from 2009 which has earned a theatrical outing, one suspects, following the plaudits won by his more recent film A Separation.

I have to put my hand up and say I know virtually nothing substantial about Iranian cinema – they don’t make monster movies or employ Mr Statham over there, so in a very real sense they’re completely off my usual radar. I have no idea, therefore, how representative this film is of the country’s output: but regardless of that, this is still an arrestingly accomplished and interesting movie.

Set in the present day, it concerns a group of old university friends who are now in their thirties and forties; some of them have young children. They are setting out for a weekend of leisure in a beachfront house by the sea. But with them is a newcomer, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), the schoolteacher of one of the kids – she is there because one of the men in the group, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) is looking for a bride; this is a not-very-subtle attempt at matchmaking by the others.

Things don’t go quite to plan but everyone ends up in a fairly nice house on the beach, where they plan to stay for three days – even though Elly is insistent she has to leave early, for reasons she won’t disclose. Everyone relaxes; they play charades and volleyball, old jokes are rehashed, everyone seems to be having a good time and Elly and Ahmad seem to be growing closer.

But then, as Elly is gently pressing to be allowed to leave, something happens that threatens to turn the whole expedition into a devastating tragedy, the aftermath of which shocks the group to its core. As previously invisible tensions creep out into the light and personalities within the group clash in a manner most ugly, everyone present is forced to ask how much they really know about Elly…?

This may just be patronising, but I turned up to an Iranian film expecting something rather handcranked and homespun – which this to some extent is, mostly shot in one location, with a fairly limited cast, no obviously major expenditure in terms of big set-piece sequences and hardly any music. But then again this could all just be a deliberate choice on the part of Farhadi – he doesn’t appear to be one of those World Cinema directors who’s secretly nursing a hankering to work for Marvel or Eon (I direct you to the career of Lee Tamahori, who in a few years went from helming the superb Maori social drama Once Were Warriors to knocking out bonkers Bond flick Die Another Day).

About Elly… is not big or very visually complex, but Farhadi’s direction is a model of subtle efficiency, completely drawing you into the story and creating convincing atmospheres throughout. The script (Farhadi again, in association with Azad Jafarian) is also an understatedly clever thing: the early scenes are packed with throwaway details, lines, and jokes which hardly register, but which come back to haunt and cause real trouble for the characters as the plot unwinds. And in the process it all seems impressively naturalistic – one might even think this film was part-improvised; I’ve no idea whether it was or not – while the key sequence manages to be incredibly gripping , despite coming out of almost nowhere.

At first sight this seems to be a very straightforward drama about a group of friends, disconcertingly Western in outlook – it almost seems as if this film could be remade in English and set in the UK or USA with very little loss of sense or texture. But as it progresses, the tone of scenes slowly changes. Where previously the characters were very Western in outlook, relaxed, egalitarian and thoughtful, as they find themselves in increasingly stressful situations older patterns of behaviour reappear. The men become more chauvinistic and dominating, the women cowed and nervous. The demands of traditional society force the characters into increasingly morally dubious choices, effectively making them the unwilling participants in a conspiracy to deceive.

The movie offers no easy conclusions about these things, and indeed the conclusion of the film itself is very understated and quiet, given some of the foregoing events. But the main question which has been hanging over the story is resolved, and the characters are left to deal with the consequences of their actions; this will clearly not be easy.

This very thoughtful and rather serious film is superbly directed and extremely well played by the ensemble cast: it’s yet another example of a film which many more people would enjoy than will probably consider going to see it. The smaller screen at the Oxford Phoenix was packed out for its solitary showing there (cue much jigging about early on as everybody tried to get their heads in a position where they could read the subtitles over the shoulder of the person in front) – and deservedly so, for this is as good a drama as anything I’ve seen this year. Be brave this year: stroke more bandicoots.

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