Monday, January 13, 2014

158. Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi’s French language film “Le passé” (The Past) (2013): Offering the flipside of Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ with some parallels to Ray’s ‘Charulata’

The title of a movie often provides a vital clue for a viewer to approach and analyze a film.

In Asghar Farhadi’s latest work The Past, there are several pasts on review:  the past life of the Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mostaffa) and his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) now about to sign divorce papers; the past life of Marie who had lived with a gentleman we never see on screen but is currently living in Brussels and is definitely the father of Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and possibly of even of Lea; the past life of Samir (Tahar Rahim) whose wife Celine is in a coma after a botched suicide attempt, and is a husband-in -waiting  for a pregnant Marie after she divorces Ahmad. These pasts are never shown in the film; the viewer has to flesh out these pasts from bits of dialog in the film as it progresses.  The pivotal point for all the three “pasts” revolves around one individual Marie. She is the one seeking a divorce.  She is the one who has two husbands living under one roof, one a man who is going to be her husband and another a husband who is going sign her divorce papers. It is interesting to note that in both the Farhadi films, it is the wife wanting a divorce, though in both films the wife seems to care for the husband in indirect ways and the husband's seemingly stubborn actions seems to have led to the current situation.

The pasts in the film The Past are developed by the screenplay writer/director Farhadi  in multiple ways. The relationship of Marie towards Samir is captured by a stunning remark by Marie’s daughter to Ahmad “You know why she went to that jerk? Because, he reminded her of you.” Both Ahmad and Samir do resemble each other physically. Both are Muslims who married French women. Both seem to want to leave their respective wives at a later point in their lives.

And at a crucial point in the film, the third unseen “past “, that of Samir’s life with Celine, is recaptured briefly in the film using the effect of smell of the perfume Samir wore when he was with Celine.

'Something unresolved when two people fight after 4 years of separation'

In an interesting visual metaphor, Marie’s “house” is under renovation which includes painting to fixing of leaky kitchen sinks. The Past offers a flipside of Farhadi’s earlier work Nader and Simin: A Separation, where a resolute wife was separating from a distraught husband—a film in which two sets of husbands seemed to be in lesser control of their lives than their respective wives. In both films, the Iranian men prefer to stay in Iran.  Interestingly A Separation had the Iranian actress Leila Hatami in the strong and practical wife’s role of a wife seeking a divorce; in The Past, Ms Hatami’s real life husband plays the strong and level headed husband Ahmad agreeing to a divorce. Director Farhadi is mastering the technique of flipping/mirroring roles on film and in reality from film to film.

Glass barriers separate sound and total communication in the opening
sequence of The Past 

The collaboration of Farhadi and Iranian cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari  on the two films has been a major factor in the success of the two movies. The final scene of A Separation has a glass panel that impedes the crucial spoken words of the daughter of divorced parents to the magistrate from reaching the parent’s ears, while the opening scene of The Past has glass panels of the international airport impeding proper aural communication. The end of A Separation suggests the social fracture between husband and wife has been formalized while in the end scene of The Past the social fracture of one couple seems to be healing. Farhadi is deliberately flipping the story and the coin at different levels. In The Past’s opening scene words are not spoken or heard and in the final scene, too, the communication is limited to the visual, the olfactory, and the body language. Farhadi has honed his skills as a director and scriptwriter, improving as he goes along from film to film.

The perfect father and house-husband

In both films, the children or the offspring of the adults born and unborn play pivotal roles during the screen time of the two films in determining the outcomes. Samir’s son Fouad asks his dad an inconvenient question while riding the metro “Where is home?” as he has lived in two homes, one with his real mother Celine and another with his foster-mother-in-waiting, Marie.  Thus, both the Farhadi movies explore the effects of divorce/separation on adults and children of the adults.

Both films are equally tales of lies that leave a deep impact on different sets of marital lives. For an Iranian like Farhadi, the tenets of marriage are important and sacred, while in France even Muslims like Samir (an inference one draws from the names Samir and Fouad) seem to disregard those tenets.

Asghar Farhadi’s cinema really came to fore after he made About Elly (2009) as his earlier work Fireworks Wednesday pales in comparison both in content and in style. For Indian viewers, About Elly is similar to a tale filmed by an Indian director Mrinal Sen adapted from a short story by Ramapada Chowdhury. The Indian film in Hindi film was called Ek din Achanak (One day suddenly) (1989) which competed at the Venice Film Festival some 20 years ago and even received an honorable mention from the jury. Like Elly disappears in About Elly, in Ek din Achanak, a professor and head (played by Dr Shreeram Lagoo) of a family, that included his two daughters and a son, suddenly disappears without explanation or trace. That Mrinal Sen film had also developed a parallel story to that of Farhadi’s script.

Now The Past, yet again, has an end scene that recalls the end scene of yet another Indian film of repute—this time the Bengali  maestro Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1965), winner of the Silver Bear for director Ray at the Berlin film Festival. Both films end with the crucial handshake/touching of hands between husband and wife that is deliberately left ambiguous by the respective directors. In both the Indian and the Iranian films, the respective husbands realize their “past” mistakes in their relationships to their respective forsaken wives and try to reaching out to them with their hands in the end scenes. Ray’s Charulata was based on the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s tale The Broken Nest.

Despite the uncanny similarities to two famous works of Indian cinema, the increasing mastery of Farhadi’s screenplay writing abilities is nothing but awesome, considering that he achieves these feats alone without the assistance of a co-scriptwriter.  In The Past, Ahmad’s missing bag on arrival at the airport might appear an innocuous detail—it is common occurrence to flyers worldwide. But the missing/broken bag for scriptwriter Farhadi is a prop for developing the narrative of how Ahmad and Samir differ in dealing with kids who are inquisitive about the contents of a bag when they might contain gifts for them and others in the family. The bag also serves as a metaphor for the affection of Ahmad towards Lea (whose biological father’s identity is blurred in the script) at a time when social ties are about to be broken by an impending divorce. It is a baggage of the “past” connections to the family. But during the car ride from airport to Marie’s home when Ahmad brings up a past detail, Marie cuts him off “It’s not important..I don’t want to go back in to the past.” By a contrast, while Marie wants to forget the past, all the three kids yearn to retain past memories (Lucie and Lea of the time with Ahmad, and Fouad of the time with Celine in his earlier home). In all his later films, Farhadi ensures that his final scene in his scripts are enigmatic and open ended ensuring the viewer has to reflect on Farhadi’s work even after the movie is over to understand it properly. That’s cinema for mature audiences.

In comparison to A Separation, Farhadi’s next work The Past, offers a viewer a structured comparison of the western attitudes and Iranian attitudes.  Consider the following discussion between Marie and Ahmad on her relationship with her future husband and father of he unborn child:

  Ahmad: When did you meet each other?
  Marie: In the drugstore. He came to get his wife's medicines.
  [Ahmad sneers]
  Marie: What?
  Ahmad: In our culture, it is laughing.
  Marie: But in our culture, it is mocking!

For those who missed the point, Farhadi is ironically looking at the start of an illegitimate extramarital relationship when a husband is trying to help his own wife recover from an unspecified illness. Farhadi in The Past actually improves on what he had achieved in A Separation by incorporating additional perspectives of cultural differences beyond the effects of lies and the processes of a divorce on varied characters. Several bits of conversation in the film point to Ahmad’s inability to adjust to life in France as the reason that cost his marriage.  But has the marriage really been torn apart?  A detail of the spoken words in the film indicates otherwise.  The gynecologist discussing Marie’s pregnancy states philosophically “In this situation, every certainty is a doubtful!”  Equally loaded is Samir’s comment about Marie and Ahmad: “When two people see each other after 4 years and still fight together, it shows that there is something unresolved between them.”

Marie: a crucial figure in the three "pasts" presented 

Finally, a word about the citation of the award the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes Film Festival bestowed The Past quoted John 8:32 from the Bible “The truth shall set you free.” If one examines the film closely when the lies are exposed, broken marriages begin to heal and reconciliation starts. It is, therefore, surprising that the Oscars, which honored Farhadi’s A Separation, did not even nominate The Past, a more complex but superior work on several fronts including its acting performances, camerawork, screenplay, and direction.

P.S. The film won the Best Actress Award for Bérénice Bejo and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes film festival; the Best Screenplay Award at the Durban film festival, the Best Foreign Language Film of National Board of Review (USA), and the Best Audience Award at Oslo film festival. The film is on the author’s list of his top 10 movies of 2013. Farhadi’s A Separation and About Elly have been reviewed earlier on this blog.


Murtaza Ali said...

Sir, I just finished watching it... I have been wanting to watch it ever since I got to know that it features in your top 10 films of the year. I must admit that I was not disappointed. I watched it over two days... half of it last night (it had got very late and I so had to leave it in the middle) and the rest of it today. I was an absorbing experience... something that one can't really expect from most Hollywood (or similar) films of today. It's also my first Farhadi film (just can't wait to watch the other two) and I must say that he is seriously good... I could sense shades of Ceylan and Zvyagintsev in the manner he seems to tackle the complexity of human relationships.

As always, your film analysis proved to be quite handy in helping me get a better understanding of the film... there are so many perspectives of the film that I couldn't have fathomed without your actually reading this review. The parallels that you have drawn with the two Indian films tempts me to revisit them both... for my own edification. Another key thing that I have gained from reading your review (something that I would try to put into perspective while Formulating my own reviews) is the importance of analysing a filmmaker's body of work as a whole rather than assessing the works individually, in isolation.

Jugu Abraham said...

Murtaza, "The Past" for me is a perfect example of a film that cannot and ought not be evaluated without referring to or comparing with "A Separation," the immediately preceding work of Farhadi. I would be surprised if Farhadi disagrees with me.on this.