Farhadi’s Moral Tales, plus why retrospectives matter

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the newly christened Autumn Events, four films by Asghar Farhadi.

On the face of it, the recent retirement of the World Cinema Showcase—since 1999, the New Zealand International Film Festival’s annual prelude to their midwinter main event—is a loss for cinemagoers starved of diversity in a film market where theatrical distribution has become increasingly erratic and risk averse. And at first glance its replacement, the rebranded ‘Autumn Events’, is merely a downsized version streamlined for the sake of prudence and clarity. Put into perspective though, and the new concise, bite-sized format seems perfectly adapted to an overcrowded arts calendar, where elbowroom is at a premium with other niche film festivals just on the horizon. Apart from the chance to catch some high-profile festival hits in advance of their otherwise default placement in the flagship programme—Olivier Assayas’s new film, After May (Something in the Air), I’m particularly looking forward to—the most obvious silver lining to these changes is the surprise return of a retrospective component to the festival landscape, one that has been conspicuously absent since 2009’s tribute to the late Barry Barclay.

Although the festival continues to curate standalone retro screenings, typically of new digital restorations, and has included two of those, Lawrence of Arabia (in 4K) and Guys and Dolls, as part of its Autumn Events slate, the presentation of auteur retrospectives has all but disappeared. Programmers can hardly be blamed for reassessing their priorities, especially when in 2008, they brought us arguably the most important retrospective in the festival’s history—the complete films of Edward Yang, whose back catalogue still remains largely unavailable, whether sought legitimately or illicitly—only for it to attract an embarrassingly meager (and by all accounts, financially disastrous) turnout. Dedicated cinephiles aside, the reasons why so few festivalgoers attended the Yang screenings, or at least, ventured past a single viewing (ironically, the most familiar and readily available of the Yang films, Yi Yi, was the best patronised) are, I think, more complex than the dispiriting perception that Yang is too unknown and too difficult a filmmaker to warrant proper attention, or that film culture in New Zealand is too apathetic and unadventurous to support a four-hour Taiwanese masterpiece and its accompanying works. As a general observation, retrospectives at the festival have always felt under-attended—somewhat inevitable, when you consider that they compete against a vast line-up of new features, documentaries, and special presentations. With so much to choose from, and only so much time (and money) to devote, the excuse for ignoring a retrospective of Yang’s magnitude has less to do, perhaps, with disinterest than impracticality or being spoilt for choice.

A wise move, then, for the organisers to isolate the retrospective and give it a better chance of exposure amongst a smaller, more concentrated group of films. But despite this adjustment, the challenge persists of how to convince an audience to appreciate an artist’s unified body of work—surely the raison d’être behind any exhibited retrospective—beyond simply dipping their toes in. In the case of the Autumn Events’ Asghar Farhadi focus, the widespread critical and commercial success of the director’s recent Oscar winner, A Separation, is as good a motivation as any. On its own terms, Farhadi’s international breakthrough strikes one as a flawlessly calibrated domestic drama whose constituent parts—intuitive, committed actors; a mastery of mise en scène through confined interior spaces; a morally and emotionally intricate script—are exceptionally in sync. By no fluke does a filmmaker get all those elements to come together so seamlessly, though, and the process of tracing the evolution of Farhadi’s methodology right back to his debut feature, Dancing in the Dust (2003), is both a rewarding and illuminating exercise, especially given that conventional wisdom surrounding his oeuvre is how little in common it has with the hallmarks of Iranian cinema as the West knows it.

‘Fireworks Wednesday’

To be sure, Farhadi’s films are studied, deliberate, and classically structured—a far cry from the innovative, transparent, implicitly political works of contemporaries such as Kiarostami, Panahi, and the Makhmalbafs. Politically, they appear to fly under the radar, content to frame society well within the harsh constraints imposed by the Iranian government. (This is not to say that Farhadi’s peers aren’t as careful in the way they choose to represent and critique the situation.) Farhadi may have not been persecuted by the regime yet, but his narratives are just as sensitive to the problems expressed in a growing number of banned Iranian films. (For the record, A Separation’s tumultuous storyline certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by authorities, nor has Farhadi’s support for blacklisted countrymen Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi.) Crucially, the opportunity to see his earlier films in chronological order reveals a subtle yet fluid awareness of the social conditions Iranian women must learn to navigate from birth. In Farhadi’s world, there’s rarely a minute that goes by without a female character stopping to think or halting her routine to calculate the consequences of her next move. Patriarchy and theocracy are embedded in the everyday as you would expect, and inform many of the major plot points: in Dancing in the Dust, an idealistic young man is forced to divorce his new wife because of her mother’s rumoured ‘indecency’; in About Elly, an improper situation concerning a supposedly single woman proves ruinous for her matchmaking friends. Of a more powerful, cumulative effect, however, are the small gestures and footfalls of women who feel constantly arrested in their daily existence, be it because of the frustrating gender inequality, the predatory gaze of males, or the rule (and sometimes, fist) of their husbands.

There is a danger, of course, in reading too much into the circumstances of Farhadi’s characters—players who exist in the context of a movie conscious of reflecting (if also exposing) the strict attitudes of a government whose people are, in reality, known to be far more open-minded about codes of conduct. This is duly noted from Farhadi’s third and best film onwards, Fireworks Wednesday (2006), where the shift to an urban, middle-class setting is coupled with a clearer outline of tradition vs. modernity, and with it, the relaxing of some—but certainly not all—behaviours. (The film also marks the point when Farhadi began casting professional actors, thus introducing a controlled theatricality into his storytelling.) Before things go terribly wrong in About Elly (2009), we encounter for the first time in a Farhadi film a sustained depiction of characters laughing, joking, dancing, and genuinely enjoying themselves and the company of others. If Farhadi’s first two features, Dancing in the Dust and Beautiful City (2004), are distinguished by their directness as character studies, his subsequent films move skillfully between the emotions, suspicions, and interactions of ensemble casts, foregrounding a greater and equal understanding of the moral conundrums experienced by both men and women, husbands and wives. Indeed, there’s an impressive plurality in the way Farhadi arranges, overlaps, and finally knots together these relationships that comes to the fore in Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly—a multilayered quality that recalls Abbas Kiarostami, only achieved through plotting and performance.

What is consistent from the first film to the last is a sense of ordinary people trying to do the right thing, a tension derived from strained and compromised marriages, the sometimes-devastating implications of justice, and how every action and reaction is informed by custom, propriety, and law. The actresses are also luminous, notably Taraneh Alidoosti, who stars in three of the four films. While these throughlines and motifs may be visible to the perceptive viewer, they’re undoubtedly more satisfying when comprehended across an entire body of work. The same can be said of Farhadi’s development as a director, and in particular, his visual sensibility; this retrospective giving us a clear line of sight between the simple, quotidian style of Dancing in the Dust, and the artful, discursive imagemaking evident in A Separation. To conclude, it would be reductive to recommend one Farhadi film ahead of three others—they all have their own unique merits and raise their own moral arguments (argument, being the operative word in Farhadi’s universe). And taken together, as a retrospective, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. With any luck, audiences will be able to look forward to Farhadi’s latest film, The Past, expected to premiere at Cannes in May, before hopefully being snatched up by the New Zealand International Film Festival straight after.

The Autumn Events programme commences in Auckland and Wellington from April 18. A trio of sixties Godard landmarks (‘Vivre sa vie’, ‘Bande à part’, ‘Pierrot le fou’) round out the retrospective sidebar. A full screening schedule is available at nzff.co.nz/autumn-events.

Main Image
Asghar Farhadi (foreground) and cast on the set of About Elly.