Two years ago, the heavy Iranian drama “A Separation” became a major hit, grossing over $20 million worldwide and winning several dozen awards, among them both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Its filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, returns with “The Past."The similarly feted drama takes him to France to tell of an Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), visiting an ex-wife (Berenice Bejo), right when she’s dealing with drama involving her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim) and his wife, who lies braindead in a coma following a mysterious incident.
You had the idea for “The Past” before “A Separation” had even come out, but the two share some elements, like divorce and its effect on children. Did you view them as connected?
They’re like siblings. I didn’t want them to be siblings, but when I look at them now they really are. The difference is in “A Separation,” everything happens in the present time and the characters are responsible for their present decisions. But it this is about something that has happened in the past and years later the characters are paying the consequences.
Ahmad is kind of like a detective.
He’s like the protagonists of western films. He arrives somewhere from far away, he stays, and then he leaves. Western characters, when they enter this new world and stay in it temporarily, they never dissolve completely into that new world. Ahmad comes in and says he doesn’t have a key role in any of what he sees. But as he goes forward he realizes he actually has the key role.
Did this story have to take place in France?
When I started writing the story I thought of France. There are a few reasons for that. One is I’ve had many trips to France in the last few years. I don’t feel like a stranger there, perhaps because many French people have seen my films. And cinema has made me closer to the French people. Also, the rhythms of life in Paris and in Tehran are close. I don’t mean the life itself, but the rhythm.
It’s also very strongly multicultural. The characters from your films are from all over: from North Africa, from Argentina, from Belgium.
That was one of the reasons why I picked Paris. It was like an intersection all the world passes through. When people of different cultures are gathered together in one country, it’s like they’ve all left their past and come together in one country. The only character who’s from France is the woman who’s in a coma in the hospital.
Could this story ever have taken place in Iran?
I did think of that. But I needed the man to be coming from somewhere far away. I couldn’t imagine him coming from France to Tehran, because his characteristics are completely Iranian. For instance, if Ahmad was French, he would have told Marie directly and explicitly when he was leaving four years before that he’s not going to return. This is our cultural characteristic, that we don’t speak directly and we don’t say everything at once.
Working outside the country also meant avoiding Iran’s notoriously difficult censors.
Censorship makes it difficult for you, but when you’re in your own culture it is easier. I don’t mean I’ve gotten used to censorship — I’m talking about finding the way to resist censorship, and finding a style in doing so. When someone has grown up in a situation of censorship and limitations, they have adapted to it, and when they go to a country without censorship, they cannot really change over night.
Censorship can inspire a certain creativity, though.
It does make it really difficult, but it does make you more creative. If it happens one’s whole lifetime, it could really drive you crazy, but for a short period of time it can make you creative. My style was formed in Iran and when I came out of Iran I kept that form and style.
You’re planning films in other countries, including an English-speaking one. Will you return to Iran?
I’ve left myself open to this, and I want the stories to tell me where and when to make films. I might have a story tomorrow that I have to make in Iran, and I’ll definitely go to Iran to make that. If that story takes me to Argentina, I’ll do that.
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