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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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Golden Globes are tonight. And one of the nominees is a film from Iran called "The Past." It's directed by Asgar Farhadi, who became an international sensation after his film "A Separation" won an Oscar two years ago.
But as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, Farhadi is less interested in being known as the it Iranian filmmaker and more interested in the work of peeling open relationships that have collapsed.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "The Past" opens as a woman picks up her soon to be ex-husband from the airport, in the rain.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN FALLING)
QURESHI: She brings him to the house they once shared, a house she's now renovating with her new boyfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PAST")
TAHAR RAHIM: (as Samir) Maria?
BERENICE BEJO: (as Marie) Oui.
QURESHI: It's the kind of twist that makes Asgar Farhadi a master storyteller, says Columbia University's Hamid Dabashi. He teaches literature and Iranian studies.
HAMID DABASHI: His cinema is just like an onion. You peel one layer and there's another layer fresh, ready for you. You think, well, that's it and then yet another layer is opened.
QURESHI: Like his last film "A Separation," Asgar Farhadi's "The Past" is about domestic conflicts. It's about the fractures between husbands and wives, between parents and children. And it's about the way the past casts shadows on those relationships.
The one thing "The Past" does not offer is easy answers.
ASGHAR FARHADI: (Through Translator) When I'm watching a movie, I don't like to watch a movie that the director is trying to give me all the answers. Or kind of some cinema that seems a bit preachy to me. 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.
QURESHI: Farhadi challenged himself by leaving his familiar surroundings in Tehran and settling in Paris for two years. He was an immigrant, an outsider finding his way like many of the characters in "The Past."
FARHADI: (Through Translator) I thought I need to find characters that could help the theme of my film which is the past. And in some ways those immigrants, where they come to France, they are already leaving behind their past so this helped accentuate my theme because they were already leaving something behind of them.
QURESHI: The small details of his characters' new lives, the almost claustrophobic interiors of their homes, and the way Farhadi shoots close ups all bring us into their lives, says Hamid Dabashi.
DABASHI: He's exquisite in his details, exquisite. 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.
QURESHI: Like the way an angry child hacks at an ear of corn...
(SOUNDBITE OF HACKING CORN)
QURESHI: ...or the way the sound outside a pharmacy comes and goes as the automatic doors open and close.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS OPEN AND CLOSE)
QURESHI: Farhadi does not use any background music in his film.
FARHADI: (Through Translator) I have to compensate for this gap by using the sound design. For example, just the ambient sounds, the rain, we have the trains - I'm using this to fill the gap that the music is not filling.
QURESHI: And Asghar Farhadi prefers to keep his stories narrow in a way you'd associate with a play, not with a cinematic epic.
FARHADI: (Through Translator) Before I went actually to the university, I was very much into novels and reading Iranian, especially Iranian stories, and that helped me look into the society. And the second thing was that when I went to the university and I started to study theatre and stage, I realize how important drama is. and the mix of the drama with this literature that was my background helped me to bring what you can see is being created.
QURESHI: What Farhadi creates is a story that could happen anywhere. He doesn't like to dwell on the fact that he's a filmmaker from the Islamic Republic of Iran. When he accepted the Oscar for "A Separation" two years ago, tensions between the US and Iran were running high.
FARHADI: I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment. Thank you so much.
DABASHI: I'm very happy that he doesn't allow himself to become a political football because that would be the end of him as a filmmaker.
QURESHI: Columbia's Hamid Dabashi says it's important for Americans to know Iranian artists and their culture, because one day the political confrontations will fade.
DABASHI: Because the day after there is an American embassy opened in Tehran, which I hope is soon, the question is what sort of contact will Americans and Iranians have with each other beyond the banality of daily politics. And when that happen and a more free flowing of Iranian-Americans into each other's society has happened, filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi will be there waiting for them.
QURESHI: And Farhadi's rise to the international stage with films like "A Separation" and now "The Past" means he's already building those bridges.
FARHADI: (Through Translator) I don't want to become a political spokesman. That's not what I do. I'm a filmmaker. But whenever possible, in my films, if I can allow and help the situation for people to understand each other, for cultures to come together, I would do that.
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.