An Ode to Asghar Farhadi

After seeing screenwriter/filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s Academy Award-winning The Salesman last year, I wrote this tweetstorm:

Only recently I finally caught up with About Elly (2009) from earlier in his career, in which he puts his spin on early modern, living room, ensemble (melo)dramas. First and foremost – and as always – his ability to craft so many equally individualized characters with such precise writing and acting shines through, a hallmark of this form’s theatrical storytelling. In addition, Farhadi shares a fascination with the creators of these dramas in the ways that the contours of a specific spatial setting can partially determine the drama and lives of the temporary occupants as much as they personally affect each other. On a more macro level, the sociopolitical environment  of the characters’ home countries plays an equally influential role on the drama of their lives, specifically regarding gender relations in About Elly.

Yet herein lies the vitality of Farhadi’s work, especially when compared to Middle Eastern stories as told by western filmmakers. The latter tend to treat their characters as mere devices representing sociopolitical ideas, robbing them of being realistically relatable. Yet since Farhadi’s a local Iranian, he strives simply to capture the lives of the people around him, with which he’s inherently more familiar than any foreigner. This is perhaps his biggest strength as a writer: he understands how to portray his characters not as inhuman embodiments of their sociopolitical environments, but rather as nuanced products of them.

By so inextricably intertwining personal identities with their political surroundings, the unfolding of the story (always largely centered around the characters’ contested, subjective perspectives, an idea at the heart of the best theatre writing as well) inevitably adopts allegorical sociopolitical implications, commenting on Iranian culture not as a polemical but rather as empathetically observational. Yet even though understanding their personal lives and their sociopolitical situations becomes one and the same, Farhadi always puts forth the highly theatrical notion that the truth – regarding both what’s happened in the past and the identities of those around us – are impossible to know from our fleeting interactions with them, particularly in all inherently fleeting artistic recreations. Farhadi understands this paradoxical relationship between art and life, namely that the latter can only be understood in its inconceivable totality whereas the former is obviously finite. And yet, art in fact lasts longer than mortal lives, most of which would be largely forgotten by future generations if not for artistic recordings.

As such, Farhadi casts equal doubt on himself and others who venture to capture truth in art, symbolized in the movie’s extended first shot of a slit of light surrounded by total darkness. As a literal framing mechanism, this image introduces the subsequent story as that sliver of light, with the audience ultimately only receiving a small portion of Iran’s potential truth. We only realize what we’re looking at when the picture expands, the sort of omniscient perspective falsely put forth by too many movies. Contrary to such implicit artistic assertions, Farhadi realizes his vision of Iran is only HIS version of its truth, and the truth of the whole country – similar to how the truth of these characters’ drama lies in the eye of each beholder – can only be attained by compiling the perspectives of everyone who participates in it, a near impossibility. Even so, each ray of light that does illuminate this long-misunderstood culture should be cherished, especially when they’re as immaculately executed as Farhadi’s cinematic visions.

Given the theatricality of these visions, they – and Farhadi – would be a match made in heaven on the stage. As noted above, Chekhov is clearly an inspiration for him; in About Elly, the audience’s individual, subjective interpretations of an abstract noise – the one marking Elly’s mysterious disappearance – playing a major part in how they understand the whole kit and caboodle calls to mind the famous denouement of The Cherry Orchard. And also as mentioned previously, any theatrical venture led by Farhadi should of course come with his usual company of masterful performers. We would all be better off if Asghar Farhadi shared his unique visions of Iran with the world in as many different mediums as possible, reaching the most amount of people unknowingly waiting to be simultaneously educated and floored by his compassionate knowledge.







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