By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 17, 2013 at 9:00AM
Even before it screened this morning for press at Cannes, Asghar Farhadi's anticipated French-language follow up to his Oscar-winning foreign smash "A Separation" had been touted by many here as a top contender for the Palme d'Or, given the director's track record and a story that calls to mind many of the themes at the center of his international breakthrough. While there's no way of knowing how Steven Spielberg and co. will react to the drama when it premieres tonight, the majority of press in attendance responded very favorably to the film, boding good things to come.
Shot over a whopping four months in Paris, as Farhadi revealed during the film's press conference following the screening, "The Past" centers on Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who after returning to Paris from Tehran in order to finalize his divorce to Marie ("The Artist" star Berenice Bejo), discovers all is not well at home with his soon to be ex and her daughter (Pauline Burlet). In trying to bring the two together, Ahmad uncovers a secret from the past that could threaten to keep the pair at odds for life.
"We try to run away from the past, to hide from the past," Farhadi said of the premise behind the film, "but no human being can succeed at that. It's not that time passes, it's that the past weighs more heavily on you. What exists are the memories of past events. The past is created through the filter of our subjective feelings and we rewrite events in a more somber way or the opposite. One can always call the past into question; the past is no more clear than the future. The relationship with both future and past is equally ambiguous. Sometimes we have the courage to go back to the past and apologize."
For Farhadi, this marks his first project made outside of his native Iran, where he's made a worldwide name for himself, despite the country's strict censorship laws that have crippled so many filmmakers' careers. Asked whether he felt free making a film in France, he said, "There are two kinds of censorships. You have censorship like there is in Iran and then you have a far more dangerous censorship, which is of the self. Your own inner censorship may spring from social, economic, financial situations. When I leave my country, the restrictions specific to Iranian cinema no longer apply to me. I have my own censorships that I can't control; my personality has already been shaped."
"When I work in a different context this shadow of restrictions placed on me kind of disappears," he continued. "I can't say that I suddenly feel liberated or freer. I have assimilated a lot of these restrictions and I see them as an asset. I try to find a source of creation out of the situation."
With working in a new country came the challenge of collaborating with his mainly French-speaking cast via an interpreter. Bejo explained that the four months of rehearsal helped immeasurably with the process. "The interpreter's voice became Asghar's voice within two weeks," she said. "It wasn't a barrier." Because of the extensive rehearsal period, Bejo said it felt as if they had shot 50 takes before actually getting to each scene.
"He's like a choreographer," Bejo said of Farhadi. "He picks up the screenplay, gives us exact positions and then we act. It sounds very strict, but we have a clear cut path as through we are the interpreters. He decides on all the details and I just love that."
Following "A Separation," Farhadi revealed that he was fielded with a number of promising North American projects seeking a director for hire. "I was forced to make a decision," he said. "When I was offered a proposal when a screenplay was already written, I had to ask myself, 'Do I want to be a technician?' I realized I didn't wan to work in that way. I wanted to give rise to the project myself."
But don't count him out on ever working in America. "If one day I wanted a story to take place in the U.S., then I would write it and shoot it there," he said. "Hollywood is a mixed bag but there are good things and bad things there. I just wait for the stories to well up in my mind."