The Salesman (Forushande, Iran-France, 2016)

Not quite in the frame

Another film where Asghar Farhadi ‘places’ the spectator in shifting sands in terms of what might have happened offscreen, at a crucial moment, and challenges us as to how we should respond to the developing narrative. All his last four films use this device of withholding vital information from the audience however he’s less interested in created an enigma for a thriller, though it does this, as using the ellipsis as a space where the viewer is offered to opportunity to think through various possibilities.

As in the previous films (I’ve blogged about The Past and A Separation) Farhadi obliquely (to avoid censorship?) critiques Iranian society; primarily its patronising patriarchy. In a dramatic opening, the central characters’ home is shaking as if being hit by an earthquake; it transpires its foundations are being undermined by badly regulated builders. It’s a bravura sequence, much of it is shot in one take. This metaphor extends from the shaky foundations of Iranian society to the wobbling marriage of the protagonists Rana and Emad, played superbly by Farhadi regulars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini (who won an award at Cannes).

The couple are also playing in an am-dram production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; the initially confusing mise en scene of the title sequence is found to be the construction of the set for the play. Miller’s play about the disillusionment, of an average Joe, with the American dream is intended to cast light on Emad in particular, a teacher who is playing the salesman. Some have found this heavy handed (see The Guardian’s Bradshaw); I wonder about the insistence on the importance of subtlety. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting the audience thinking but it isn’t a necessary signifier of ‘great art’. Farhadi is a melodramatist and over-determination is an essential tool of the genre. Maybe Bradshaw, and his ilk, are mainly interested in art for what it says about their ability to ‘read’ difficult texts. If it’s too easy then they can’t shine.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ by outlining what the narrative ‘hole’ motivates but an unravelling proceeds. There is more than enough subtlety in the changing vectors of the relationships between the characters to satisfy, I think, anyone who likes thought-provoking cinema. Farhadi is a melodramatist but that doesn’t mean he’s making EastEnders (a UK soap opera).

It’s a film, I suspect, that will reward a second viewing. I’d particularly like to experience the beautiful use of colour of the set of Miller’s work, to emphasise the artifice of the play, which is combined with unsettling moments when it isn’t clear whether the characters were in character or not.

Farhadi’s a top director; something the Academy Awards have celebrated for the second time as he was the guy who wouldn’t have been able to attend the Oscar ceremony because of Trump’s ban. Farhadi’s humanism transcends Iranian culture which is why he’s an arthouse favourite in the west (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t do culture).

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, 2012)

Females in the wasteland

Females in the wasteland

This is an extraordinary film, less for its content, which is good, but for the fact that it’s directed by a woman in a society that treats women, almost, as non citizens in the public sphere. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature, she’d already made a documentary, follows the feisty Wadjda as she determines to get and ride a bike. This, of course, is such a basic desire for most children, but for a girl in Saudi it’s more like pie in the sky.

A simple narrative offering a slice of life, and concerning a bike, inevitably recalls Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) but Al-Mansour cites Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) and Offside (Iran, 2006). The former follows the titular, determined young woman; the latter, young women trying to watch a football match in Tehran. The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000) also springs to mind in its portrayal of women in a repressive society. Wadjda stands up well in comparison with all the contemporary films; few films, if any, can match De Sica’s classic. I live in Bradford and have been alarmed to see women increasingly wearing the niqab in recent years which, to my feminist western eyes, reeks of repression. There’s little doubt that the west’s ‘war on terror’ (i.e. Islamic fundamentalist) has stimulated a reactionary reaction. As Al-Mansour makes clear, in a Sight & Sound interview (August 2013), there’s nothing in the Koran that states women should wear the full veil, it’s an invention of the Wahabi sect that has medieval ideas of how women should be treated.

The film itself portrays this absurdity with wit: for example, the girls have to stop playing because they are in the eyeline of men working on a roof some distance away. Wadjda refuses to be put down by social mores and ploughs her own furrow, no doubt just as Al-Mansour has; she stated, in the same interview, that Saudi society will change. The fact this film was made is evidence of that, though there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia for it to be screened. The ruling class there clearly like to keep the populace in ignorance.

And just in case anyone thinks I believe the west treats women properly: we are a long way from a true equality. And just in case anyone thinks I believe we are fully informed by our governments: we aren’t.

Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France-Italy-Belguim-Iran, 2010)

Where's the truth?

Where’s the truth?

Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell…? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).

Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.

It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along… But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.

One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and  surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran, 2011)

Points of view

Points of view

Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran, 2009) was one of my favourite films from last year so I was overdue in catching up with this Oscar-winning follow-up (incidentally it seems to me the Academy’s taste in foreign-language films is better than its English-language preferences). This film, unlike Elly, is a slow-burner in that it takes a while to set up without the engaging humour of the earlier piece but it’s nonetheless fascinating in its representation of Iranian life. However, once the ‘mystery’ narrative is underway – what actually happened when…? – the moral complexities of the situation are gripping.

In its narrative enigma it’s similar too About Elly however A Separation focuses more upon religious and social mores than its predecessor, which had the position of women in Iranian society at its centre. Women here, too, are important, but are one aspect of many including the role of judiciary and how to deal with Alzheimer’s in an ageing parent.

Farhadi’s direction is both arty, particularly the opening sequence when the estranged central couple directly address the camera as the judge, and realist in its handheld following of action. The film’s blessed with a multitude of excellent performances, including Farhadi’s young daughter. It ultimately makes gripping viewing.

In interview Farhadi is understandably reticent about his social critique, fellow-director Jafar Panahi has been imprisoned by the Iranian regime (the last election was hardly legitimate), but from a western perspective his criticism of the sexism of religious Iranian culture is clear. Not that we should congratulate ourselves in Britain, today’s Guardian newspapers highlights that of the 20 over-50 TV presenters only 4 are women. The forces of reaction are strong everywhere.

The Circle (Dayereh, Iran-Italy-Switz, 2000) and Offside (Iran, 2006)

We are watching you

Jafar Panahi was fortunate, I think, to be on the jury of this year’s Cannes film festival as it made his incarceration in Iran high profile and newsworthy so probably led to his release. The fact he was also on hunger strike accentuated the situation. His ‘crime’ was, reportedly, planning to make a film about last year’s disputed election in Iran. Was his arrest a tribute to the power of filmmakers or simply a symptom of the insecure feelings of an illegitimate government?

Panahi has anti-Iranian establishment form and these two films portray the ludicrous patriarchal aspects of Iran’s Islamic nation. The Circle starts with a mother worried her daughter will be divorced because the her newly-born grandchild is a girl and not the expected boy. The women are throughout restricted by what they can do because they don’t have a man’s permission. Hypocrisy reigns as – pictured above – a character is asked to make a phone call by a policeman just in case a husband answers the phone and the women are constantly verbally sexually hassled by men on the street.

Panahi’s genius is his use of realism as the camera, at the start, seems to wandering the streets capturing what’s going on. We’re often in the dark as to what’s happening (why were the women imprisoned?) just as we would be as external observers to the events. It’s also tightly structured, it begins and ends – like The Searchers – with an opening and closing of a door.

Not watching a football match

In some ways Offside is more audacious than The Circle as it was shot on location defined by both place and time. The ‘time’ being the day of a crucial World Cup qualifier and much of the film is shot at the stadium where the game took place. Brilliance all round from cast and crew to make this one work. Again the theme’s the subjugation of women – they are not allowed to watch the match as they might hear ‘bad’ language – and their sisterhood as they resist men’s power. While most of the men in The Circle are negatively represented, here we get to know the women’s guards and they are mostly fairly pathetic characters who are simply following orders.

Panahi shot the film hoping that Iran would win the game in order to have an upbeat ending. This contrasts with the bleakness of The Circle and it’s unfortunate that the earlier film seems to be the one that accurately portrays the conditions in Iran at the moment. And as I write this the news tells me that the Israelis are using their usual violent tactics in killing at least 11 people bringing supplies to the Palestinians. Until the Palestinian question is resolved (and I don’t mean Israel’s solution) then the mess to the Middle East will continue to destabilise the world.