Asghar Farhadi: A Cinematic Everyman
Asghar Farhadi’s films are each compelling examinations of family life. With Everybody Knows he broadens his range, highlighting that in an increasingly fractured society our various cultures still have more in common than not.
In our frenetically-paced, purportedly interconnected world, a challenge faced by any work of art is how it can be received universally when the concerns it expresses are local. This is particularly true when the issues raised engage with notions of morality – the way we behave in society, how we both interact with and treat each other. If morality is a construct of any given society, how can an artist speak beyond its boundaries? This is a challenge that Asghar Farhadi has overcome with extraordinary power, by focussing on the elements of our existence that we share rather than the aspects that might make us different. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Oscar-winning breakthrough A Separation (2011). The narrative might be rooted in the specifics of daily life in Tehran, but as a family drama its concerns over intergenerational relationships, the burdens of parental responsibility – towards older parents and younger children – and the stress brought on by marital difficulties speaks to us all.
Farhadi began his career in theatre before directing for television, most notably helming the 61-part series ‘Dastane yek shahr’. He made his feature debut with Dancing in the Dust (2003), followed a year later by The Beautiful City.
Fireworks Wednesday (2006), which won Farhadi the directing award at the Fajr Film Festival – along with the best actress prize for Hediyeh Tehrani, who excels as the drama’s lead, a woman in the throes of a domestic and professional crisis – and was nominated for the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, remains the earliest of his films that audiences in the West can see. (It has been released in the UK by Axiom Films.) That film’s modest success at international festivals was followed by the filmmaker’s winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival for About Elly (2009).
At the heart of these films, like the subsequent A Separation, The Past (2013), The Salesman (2016) and Everybody Knows is a conflict that sends fissures through the family unit. But the dramas Farhadi creates are also shot through with elements of the thriller, creating suspense that adds further complexity to the character dynamics. In A Separation, it’s two interlinked acts, one in response to another, caused by a sense of injustice, which implodes a close-knit family and then sends out reverberations into the community at large. Likewise, a sense of righting a wrong, but in the worst possible way, lies at the heart of The Salesman. In the way that Pedro Almodóvar employed Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ to draw out the themes of All About My Mother (1999), in The Salesman, Farhadi uses an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ to echo events that are unfolding off the stage. The Past, by contrast, is more reticent in its use of thriller tropes, but tension nevertheless builds up as a separated couple attempt to navigate a future path for their family.
Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the thriller to explore moral boundaries is present in so much of Farhadi’s work. Particularly About Elly, which deals with the disappearance of a young woman during a trip taken by a family and their friends. There’s also more than a little of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) in that tale, through its use of location and the physical space between characters. The missing girl narrative is one of the elements that drives Everybody Knows, which stars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, playing former lovers reunited at a gathering in Spain, during which something terrible happens. (If the two stars weren’t enough of a draw, the excellent Argentinian actor Ricardo Darín and Almodóvar alumnus Inma Cuesta [Julieta, 2016] also appear in the film.) It’s the second film Farhadi has made outside of Iran, after The Past. But whereas that film had its roots in Iranian culture, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi has moved further afield. But his concerns remain the same and, like his previous work, they resonate with us all.
[Words by Ian Haydn Smith]
Everybody Knows plays on our screens from Friday 8 March
Curzon Home Cinema is showing three of Farhadi's most celebrated films: A Separation, The Past and The Salesman