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"You can't go home again," wrote Thomas Wolfe, and that much-worn phrase echoes mournfully in the mind as one observes the chilly corridors and gaping personal distances of "The Past," Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's first feature since winning the Oscar for his crisp, complex and universally acclaimed marital drama "A Separation."
An elegantly turned melodrama, detailing the terse emotional warfare that ensues when an Iranian man travels to Paris to finalize his divorce from his estranged French wife, it might well have been titled "Another Separation": Farhadi's fascination with the politics and shadow structures of marriage and family -- within and without Iranian tradition-- is a binding element of his filmography.
"The Past" may seem a natural thematic follow-up to "A Separation," but the idea behind actually began germinating even before Farhadi made his 2006 film "Fireworks Wednesday" -- prompted by a personal anecdote related by a friend. "He told me that he was going on a trip to officially finalize his divorce from his wife, though they had been separated several years," he explains, via a translator, from Los Angeles. "And that thought never really left my mind: how strange it must be to have been apart from a woman all that time, and then spend several days with her to say goodbye. It had a certain dramatic aspect. So I began the screenplay just before 'A Separation' premiered and wrote it while we were travelling with the film."
He feels strongly that "The Past" and "A Separation" are siblings, and in rather a specific sense: "Although they are independent of one another they’re borne of the same family -- but one of them is female and the other is male. That’s what differentiates them."
Any gender-based disparity between them is not immediately obvious: both films, after all, are notably even-handed in their examination of heterosexual relationships. "'A Separation' is more preoccupied with the future, particularly that of the young girl at its center," explains Farhadi."'The Past' is more backward-looking. Everywhere in different cultures, men stand for the past and tradition, while women stand for change and the future."
"Backward-looking" it may be in one sense, though for Farhadi, it represented at least one significant step into new territory -- set and shot entirely in France, with French and Italian funding, it's the first film he has ever made outside Iran. "It's something I never imagined I would do," he says. "What drove me to make the film there was the story itself -- I always let the story dictate how I make a film. The film could certainly have been made in other locations, but it needed to be where the past was visible in the space and atmosphere. You'll find that specificity in Paris or Rome, say, but probably not in Hong Kong."
It was also Farhadi's first experience of working outside his native tongue -- the film's dialogue is mostly in French, not a language in which the director claims any fluency. It was less of an obstacle than you might imagine, he says: "There are several aspects to language: there's the music of it, the information that is imparted through it, and the cultural roots of a nation. Very often, we may know another language but are incapable of penetrating its culture and identity."I was in France for two years, so on numerous days I walked the streets and listened to people talk to each other. I didn't understand much but I did try to absorb the melody and music of it. Taking on that challenge was partly what attracted me to this idea."
The project therefore entailed putting a lot of trust in his French-speaking stars -- particularly Berenice Bejo. The Argentinian-born actress who received an Oscar nomination two years ago for her fizzy breakout turn in "The Artist," but cuts a far steelier figure here as a hard-bitten mother caught between past and present loves. It's a change of pace that earned her the Best Actress award at Cannes -- though she only got the role when Marion Cotillard pulled out due to scheduling conflicts.
Farhadi had already befriended Bejo and her husband, director Michel Hazanavicius, over their frequent encounters on the 2011 awards circuit, and was enticed by the opportunity to "exhibit a new face of hers." "It would have been a very different film [with Cotillard]," he reflects. "Even though the characters are written very precisely in the screenplay, my feeling is that when any actor comes in, they define that character to resemble themselves."
The 2011 awards season was a charmed one for Farhadi, and not just because it supplied him with a new leading lady -- winning the Oscar for "A Separation" underlined Farhadi's escalation to the upper tier of international auteurs. It's not an institution he takes lightly, even if he finds the campaigning process rather challenging. "One of the hardest things for a filmmaker is to answer questions about his film after it has been completed," he admits. "It’s as if you were making several appointments every day to praise your children or defend them. But evidently there’s no recourse. It is a way of publicity, and the films and distributors need it. What is unique about the Oscar is that as a result, the audience of the film grows. That means a lot to me."
He also takes seriously the responsibility of representing Iran in the race -- and has a pithy response to those who question whether "The Past," as a European production, is an appropriate submission for the country. "If people choose to believe that the identity of a film is determined by where the money comes from, I would allow them to remain in their ignorance," he says, with an audible shrug. "Here I feel that I am not only a filmmaker, but also an ambassador, the representative of my people."
Iran has, of course, a difficult history of artistic suppression and censorship -- infamously evident in the recent persecution and house arrest of filmmaker Jafar Panahi -- but Farhadi insists his decision to leave the country for his latest film was a creative, rather than a political, one. Indeed, he's cautiously optimistic about the future for Iranian filmmakers, citing the new, "more open-minded" government's decision to reopen the country's House of Cinema as a sign that "gradually things are being restored to greater normalcy." Does he see himself returning home for his next feature, then, or continuing his European exploration? "I have left the door open for both," he says carefully. "I’m waiting to see what story speaks to me."
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