Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi became one of the world's most recognized Iranian artists when his movie A Separation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film two years ago.
But he's not the sort of artist bent on addressing his nation's tumultuous relationship with the West through his work. He's more about showing us all what we have in common.
"I don't want to become a political spokesman; that's not what I do," Farhadi says. "I'm a filmmaker. But whenever possible, in my films if I can allow people to understand each other and for cultures to come together, I would do that."
Like A Separation, Farhadi's new movie The Past focuses on domestic stories that transcend nationality. It's a film about the more universal conflicts within families, about the broken relationships between husbands and wives, between parents and children.
The Past opens with a French woman named Marie picking up her estranged Iranian husband from the airport. He's returned to Paris to finalize their divorce, and Marie invites him to stay at their old house — a house she is now renovating with her new boyfriend.
The crackling tension between her past and future haunts the film, serving as a kind of central question Farhadi is asking his audience: Can we ever truly escape our past? How does it entangle our present, and therefore our future?
Farhadi very deliberately does not offer easy answers.
"I don't like to watch a movie in which the director is trying to give me all the answers, or cinema that seems preachy to me," he says. "I like to participate in cinema, and to be interactive. And I think the only way to create that situation is to create questions for the audience to be able to participate."
Farhadi follows in a line of distinguished Iranian filmmakers who've made that country's cinematic tradition a "monumental edifice" in world cinema, according to Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University. He says what distinguishes Farhadi's films within that edifice is his masterful storytelling.
"His cinema is just like an onion — you peel one layer and there's another layer fresh ready for you," Dabashi says. "You think that's it, and then another layer is opened."
Dabashi adds that Farhadi's distinctive approach to storytelling, filled with symbols and foreshadowing, is a reflection of his literary background.
"He's exquisite in his details. I don't know of any other Iranian filmmaker who is so particular about getting the layered emotive universe of a character ... all of it at the service of his dramatic realism."
Reflecting on his upbringing in Tehran, Farhadi says he found his political and artistic voice through studying literature and theater.
"I was very much into novels and reading Iranian, especially Iranian stories," he says. "And that helped me look into the social fabric. And the second thing was that when I went to the university and I started to study theater and stage, I realized how important drama is. And the mix of the drama with this literature that was my background is what you can see is being created."
Dabashi, at Columbia University, says it's critical for Americans to know Iran through its artists. One day, he says, the political confrontations will fade, and "the day after there is an American embassy opened in Tehran, the question is what sort of contact will Americans and Iranians have with each other beyond the banality of daily politics. And when that happens, and a more free flowing of Iranians and Americans into each other's society has happened, filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi will be there waiting for them."
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