Asghar Farhadi can be mentioned in the same breath as Vittorio De Sica. It’s a big claim to compare a director with only six feature films under his belt with the legend that was De Sica. Through his films however, Farhadi has demonstrated that he is one of the best creators in the cinematic world right now. If you haven’t stopped reading at this point, I can explain why.
First, let’s start with the images. Farhadi’s partner in crime is legendary Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari. Kalari has photographed some of the most visually stunning films to come out of Iranian Cinema (The Wind Will Carry Us, A Moment of Innocence). He is known for his unbelievable work principle: often personally operating the camera, he gets emotionally involved with most of his projects and is one of the best in the business for creating moods that seem to be films on their own. Through the years Kalari and Farhadi have assembled masterful images in their films. These images tend to summarize the themes of the films within a few seconds. Take the opening of The Past; here the protagonist tries to communicate to his ex-wife through a piece of glass. Farhadi shows their mouths moving, but provides no sound or subtitles for their dialogue. Though they try their best, they are incapable of communicating with each other. This then leads to the title sequence in which a windshield wiper of the car tries to erase the title “The Past” from the screen, as the characters try to erase their past from their lives. This brilliant parallel serves as an extra layer, visually showing us what the film is about.
Another trait that sets Farhadi apart is his work ethic, specifically the way he works with his actors. In his Oscar winning picture A Separation for example Sareh Bayat plays the roll of Razieh, a religious woman that comes from the poor conservative part of Tehran. Instead of telling Bayat to play the character as a religious one however, Farhadi instructs her to start praying five times a day, and to wear a conservative head scarf… for three months. Bayat was therefore able to create an unbelievably realistic character. Farhadi has a strong background in theater performance, a trait that truly resonates through his rehearsal process. Rehearsals are often three to fours months long, and mainly consist of in depth table reads. Farhadi then asks his actors questions that were not even in the script, causing them to dive even deeper within their characters. With this Farhadi allows his actors to blossom into fully functioning characters during the rehearsal process.
The most impressive aspect of Farhadi however lies within his writing. His films are brilliantly written and incredibly complex. The defining detail of a Frahdi script is the lack of an antagonist. He has never written a character that is intrinsically evil or bad. Farhadi writes characters that simply react to their environment. He puts his characters through situations that force them to commit acts that are unreasonable to others but since we as the audience have seen the reason behind that character’s decision, we fully sympathize with them. The main theme of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief emphasizes the fact that the thief isn’t bad; he is just doing what is necessary. That theme could apply to every character Farhadi creates. With this he expands the universe in which his characters exist. We soon realize that even the most minor characters take certain actions only because of factors within their world. Some of these factors are not on screen.
This leads to another brilliant aspect of a Farhadi film: The things we don’t see. Farhadi always brings us into the story too late, constantly forcing us to catch up. This makes the story feel larger than it is. This trait is beautifully paralleled in the visuals of his films. We are looking at someone through a doorway for example, Farhadi then closes the door, and it will remain closed until someone walks in or out. We are simply out of control. The world he creates does not depend on us. We get the impression that it will keep going whether we are watching or not.
An extreme example of this lies within the way Farhadi manipulates the Inciting Incident of his films. An Inciting Incident is an event in a film that irreversibly changes the life of the protagonist causing them to embark on their journey. In the film WALL-E, for example, the Inciting Incident happens when Eva comes to earth and WALL-E immediately falls in love with her. This irreversibly changes the plot as WALL-E holds on to her spaceship and is taken away from his home. Most films have their Inciting Incident within the fist twenty minutes. In a Farhadi picture, however, the Inciting Incident can happen anywhere. In About Elly and A Separation, for example, the Inciting Incident comes halfway into the movie. This works brilliantly in the Farhadi’s favour since we are much more attached to the characters at this point, making the Inciting Incident more meaningful. In The Past the Inciting Incident happens before the film has even began. We are simply watching the consequences of an event that we did not witness, once again making his universe feel larger, and more realistic. Farhadi changes our notion of an Inciting Incident to further the impact of his stories. He is able to create dramatic, engaging stories out of characters dealing with a difficult situation. His films usually lead to an unresolved ending which makes us examine the events that will take place once he has decided to stop showing us this story. This once again hints at the fact that the story will go on after we stop watching. This in turn gets us to ponder the meaning of the film making it continue in our minds long after it is finished.
Through this Farhadi has been able to create several realistic yet engaging films that tell us stories that push our own ethical and intellectual boundaries. Asghar Farhadi is yet another example of the brilliance that can be found by study films being made outside of the borders of North America. He will undoubtedly be looked at with the same eye that we now view De Sica, Hitchcock or Kazan. Watch an Asghar Farhadi film today, and I promise you will not be disappointed.