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  • Jennifer Green

Column: Iranian Director Promotes Empathy, Dodges Censorship and Wins Awards

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is on a roll.

Two of his last three films won foreign-language Oscars, and he routinely earns top awards at major international film festivals – including Cannes, where his newest feature was just announced as the opening night premiere in competition next month.

Regular people go to see Farhadi’s movies too.

True breakouts, his 2011 family tale, “A Separation,” remains one of the 50 top-grossing foreign-language films of all time in the US, and his last drama, “The Salesman,” broke records on release in Iran.

Farhadi’s flesh-and-blood characters elicit an enormous amount of empathy, beyond potential cultural barriers and despite a decidedly non-Hollywood realist style.

In an acceptance speech read for him at last year’s Oscar ceremony, which he boycotted in protest of Trump’s proposed travel ban that included Iran, Farhadi highlighted an urgent need for cross-cultural understanding.

“Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions,” he wrote. “They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”

His films do this by artfully revealing quite a lot about Iranian society, making them fascinating to watch.

His subtle touch is born of necessity: “I believe art in the face of censorship is like water in the face of stone,” he told Slant Magazine last year about making movies in Iran. “When you place an obstacle like a stone in the way of water, the water finds its way around it.”

​Moments in Time

Farhadi has said he is often inspired by a single image that transforms into a feature-length film. The idea for “A Separation” arose from a single scene: a man bathing his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

It’s one of many memorable scenes in the film about a couple facing divorce when the wife wants to emigrate but the husband refuses to leave his senile father behind. Their 11-year-old daughter, skillfully played by Farhadi’s own daughter, is the tie that binds them.

Though much of the film was shot on handheld camera, Farhadi continually frames his characters in a way that simultaneously conveys their state of mind: the melancholy son-father washing scene of great tenderness set against the cold, hard tile of a bathroom; a couple quarreling in a descending elevator; a daughter’s silent tears and imploring stare.

The film opens with the couple talking straight to camera, representing a judge, arguing their sides to the divorce and custody issue. It’s a captivating way to situate the viewer and place us directly into the story.

Their separation is exacerbated by the need to care for the father. When the man hires a female caretaker, an acquaintance whose husband is in dire financial straits, the story takes a darker turn: her negligence leads to a fight that ends in tragedy and mutual accusations.

These characters and entwined storylines uncover so many layers of contemporary life in Tehran: the choice of whether to stay or leave Iran; the struggles of different social classes; the superstitions that can accompany deep religious belief; the place and frequent impotence of women.

Turning Points

“Everybody Knows,” Farhadi’s newest film premiering next month in Cannes, is a Spanish-language psychological thriller set in Spain and starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín.

Though his earlier films aren’t exactly thrillers, they have elements of mystery and suspense brought on by unexpected events that change the lives of his characters. In “The Salesman,” the turning point in the peaceful lives of a pair of young artists comes when the wife suffers a violent attack in their apartment.

But in fact, and like “A Separation,” their lives had already been upturned in scene one, when they were forced to move out of their home because of damage to the building’s foundation. With cracks running down walls and across windows, the home’s rupture foreshadows the fissures to come in their married life.

Meanwhile, the two are also starring in a theatrical rendition of “Death of a Salesman,” scenes from which parallel the unraveling of the couple’s placid life and happy marriage.

The intertextuality adds depth to the primary tale, both given vitality by the powerful performances of veteran actors (and Farhadi regulars) Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini.

“A Separation” and “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s two Oscar winners, are both available to stream on Amazon or on DVD at the public library.

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