Asghar Farhadi Finds the Universal Truths Revealed in Everyday Life

"The Past" examines cross-cultural relationships and the societal gulf between men and women

Asghar Farhadi
Kevin Scanlon

The Past,” Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “The Separation,” is, on surface, cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, centering on a married couple with irreconcilable differences. But in the later film — which scored a Golden Globes nomination for Foreign Language Film and won the actress prize for Berenice Bejo in Cannes — nothing is as it seems. The story, set in a working-class suburb of Paris, unfolds with the complexity of a murder mystery told with the authenticity of a docudrama.

These are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances — a hallmark of the Iranian writer-director. Bejo plays Marie, a French pharmacist who appears to have a history of involvement with emotionally distant men. Tahar Rahim, best known for his role in 2009’s “A Prophet,” plays Samir, the man she plans to marry once her divorce from Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian husband who left the family four years earlier, is finalized. Unlike most American fare, nothing is too discursive or obviously written; nobody has a fantasy job; nor do ostensibly low-income people live in fabulous apartments. This is the cinema of naturalism, designed to mirror everyday life.

“When I first began making films, I did not necessarily think that reality would be something that I would be so faithful to or be thinking about so much,” Farhadi said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “But the more films I made, the more I grasped the value of reality. Reality is a profoundly valuable ocean. And when I say reality, what I mean is those tiny daily details that appear utterly worthless at first glance.”

As the New Yorker’s Anthony wrote about “A Separation,” “the most minor events — a tetchy gesture, a chance remark — set off what should be a ripple but turns out to be a shock wave.”

“The Past” is even more subtle, full of those tiny details that reveal volumes: In one, Ahmad serves Marie an Iranian dish he has prepared for her kids, insisting that she use a spoon. “You don’t eat Ghormeh Sabzi with a fork,” he lectures in the most seemingly benign fashion, yet revealing a streak of controlling behavior that has clearly eroded their relationship.

Levels of love, jealousy, resentment, distrust, insecurity and ambiguity run deep in “The Past.” So does the gulf between women and men, with the former wrestling to break free of hidebound cultural mores while the latter cling to them like a life raft. “In my films, the men are looking more at tradition and the past, and the women are forward-looking and seeking change,” Farhadi explained. “Women have a greater adaptability to change because they can give birth. And men are more stuck in one place.”

Samir and Ahmad are of similar disposition — kind, decent men who nevertheless seem unable to articulate their feelings. With their Semitic looks and Arabic names, one could glean from their troubled relationships with Marie both a culture and gender clash.

“I think this is a universal problem, though it’s perhaps stronger in certain countries,” Farhadi said of men who can’t communicate their feelings. “Now, if these individuals happen to be in an Eastern culture where the conventions are of more restraint, this problem becomes more complex. At the very start of the film ‘The Past,’ you see two people talking through a glass. They’re both speaking, but they can’t hear each other. They don’t understand each other’s feelings.”

Like the two men in her life, whom she plays off each other, Marie often acts in ways that reflect her ambivalence: about her divorce, about the new relationship, and the early stages of her pregnancy with Samir.

“Marie is in her third relationship,” Bejo told Variety, “and she really wants it to work. But she acts young — even younger than her daughter. Maybe she realizes that she has to grow up and cannot go on with life like a 16-year-old girl. She acts without thinking she’s hurting someone.” The actress and director worked together for several months prior to shooting on improvisational exercises that allowed them to gain a more complete understanding of the characters.

Both Farhadi and Bejo have been talked up as Oscar contenders this year, which could be viewed as poetic justice, since they became acquainted with each other when making the awards circuit rounds a few years ago — she for “The Artist,” for which she received an Oscar nomination, and he for “A Separation,” the first Iranian film to win the Academy’s foreign-language prize. (In his acceptance speech, viewed 97,000 times on YouTube, Farhadi talked of Iranian culture being “hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”)

Farhadi, still mulling his next project, says he won’t change the way he treats his characters; he doesn’t think most studio films accurately portray the daily life of real people. “When I walk in the streets and visit cities,” he said, “I rarely see anybody resembling those images.”