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Cannes: Asghar Farhadi Talks Fest Favorite ‘The Past,’ Starring Actress Winner Berenice Bejo

Cannes: Asghar Farhadi Talks Fest Favorite 'The Past,' Starring Actress Winner Berenice Bejo

In what’s turning out to be a very strong year for the
Cannes Competition, it’s hard to pick a front-runner at the festival’s midway
point. As many critics rate the chances of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s “Like Father,
Like Son” (not least because of a family-ties dynamic many assume will appeal
to Jury president Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities) they also rate highly previous Cannes winners the Coen
brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” But one man sure to be in
the fray for the Palme d’Or this weekend is Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi
with “The Past.”

Nicole Kidman reputedly emerged from the film in tears and
while the reception for Farhadi’s sixth feature appears more muted than the
nearly unanimous praise that greeted “A Separation,” reviews have been
overwhelmingly positive. As the follow-up to that Oscar-winning predecessor,
“The Past” is a similarly complex and precisely crafted drama in which
Frenchwoman Marie (Berenice Bejo) opens a Pandora’s box of dark secrets in the
house she shares with her moody teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), new
partner Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son when her Iranian husband (Ali
Mosaffa) arrives to finalize their divorce. Intricately woven and perceptively
acted, “The Past”’s suspenseful narrative is filled with tiny, unexpected
shocks that change your perception of each character and their relationship to
the others, all of them handled and revealed with masterful authority by

Matt Mueller: “The Past” marks your Cannes debut. Do you see this festival
as the pinnacle of artistic acceptance?

Asghar Farhadi: I cannot be as certain as that. It’s an important event
worldwide because people have their attention on it. But this does not mean
that if a film is not in this festival, it has less value.

Why did you want to continue exploring themes of fractured
and fracturing families after “A Separation”?

It seems like I have some questions inside me, part of it
I’m aware of, part I’m unaware of, and I ask these questions by writing
these stories. When I base a story on a family it gives me a large possibility.
Spectators all over the world have experience of families so this brings them
one step closer to my films.

Although the story and characters are French, could “The
Past”’s themes have been explored as powerfully if you’d made the film in Iran?

The difference is that in our culture, people in general
rarely express themselves, but here they do. It was possible, but it would have
been another film. It would have lost many things if it had been based in Iran;
the lifestyles of the characters would have been very different. The emotions
such as love, guilt, hate and responsibility are similar; the ways of
expressing them are different in the two cultures.

When you’re directing actors, how specific do you get with
them in terms of how they portray their characters?

It’s really difficult for me to say, because I have no
outside image of myself when I’m directing. I don’t know what I’m doing.
Sometimes when I see behind the scenes [footage], I’m surprised by the things
that I’m doing. I want all the details that are in the script to be fulfilled
with precision, but I give the actors this liberty and tell them that if they
don’t believe something they should tell me.

For example?

Tahar kept asking me in the rehearsals why Samir was so calm
with this man, Ahmad, in his house. He wanted to be more aggressive. I didn’t
say, “Do as I say”; instead, I tried to organize rehearsals between the two men
so they could get to know each other more. One day, Tahar said, “I have pity
for Ahmad. I cannot treat him badly because he is, like me, in difficulty.” It
took three weeks to get this result and I gained what I sought from him, but I
gave him the liberty to arrive there on his own.

Did Berenice ever express concern that Marie might come
across as too unsympathetic?

The character she plays is very different from Berenice in
her own life. She used to say sometimes, “If I was in Marie’s place, I wouldn’t
do the same.” She needed time to take this distance between her and the
character, and become one with her. When she came to shoot the film, she
believed that everything the character did is what she would have done herself.

How has the success of “A Separation” changed your life as a
filmmaker or a person?

It didn’t change my personal life at all. My relations with
the good people in my life are the same. But it gave me the possibility to gain
a much bigger audience all over the world, and I don’t encounter financial
problems to make a film.

Is “The Past” the start of a career making films outside of

It will depend on the stories that comes to me. I won’t
decide to go make a film in a country and then find a story; I will wait for
the story to tell me where to go.

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