The director of the first ever Iranian feature to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, Asghar Farhadi has generated an unprecedented level of attention for his national cinema from the international mainstream in recent years. Building on the social-realist foundation set in the sixties and seventies by Iranian New Wave auteurs such as Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Beyzaie, Farhadi’s films primarily concern the experience of the contemporary middle-class Iranian family. These wider social themes are generally twinned with plot-driven narratives that rely heavily on mystery and the withholding of vital information to create compelling, tantalising stories.
Born in 1972, Farhadi’s film-making career began while he was in his teens when he joined the Iranian Young Cinema Society. Prior to directing feature films he wrote for television before contributing to the screenplay for veteran director Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Low Heights (2002), starring Leila Hatami, the actress who would go on to feature in a prominent role in Farhadi’s Oscar-winner A Separation (2011). The director’s debut feature, Dancing in the Dust (2003), established themes that have recurred through the rest of his films, such as his approach and exploration of marriage and Iranian social conventions. That being said, his next film, Beautiful City (2004), marked something of a departure from such concerns, instead exploring the impending execution of a teenager murderer, a study of violence that is closer in theme to Hatamakia’s preoccupations with war and death than Farhadi’s later filmography.
Fireworks Wednesday (2006) continued with the social-realist approach that has become characteristic of Farhadi’s work and once again returned to the theme of marriage and its many conditions. Taraneh Alidoosti plays Rouhi, a young bride-to-be who is caught up in a dispute between her employer and her husband. The contrast between Rouhi’s naivety, full of hope for her impending marriage, and the resentful older couple provides a neat narrative framework for Farhadi to explore, among other things, a woman’s position in contemporary Iran and what love really looks like. At this point the esteem for Farhadi outside of Iran was brewing, Fireworks Wednesday winning an award at the Chicago Film Festival and a nomination for Locarno’s Golden Leopard in 2006. This turned into real momentum with the release of About Elly (2009), which featured heavily at festivals around the world, including the 2009 Berlinale and Vienalle. The film, about the mysterious disappearance of a teacher out on a day at the beach, was the first example in which key plot points (in this case Elly’s disappearance) are obscured in order to drive the narrative forward by focussing primarily on how other characters respond.
This approach was perfected for A Separation, a film which seemed to combine all of the themes of Farhadi’s previous works into one moving, dramatic story. Once again it focusses on the marriage and separation of a middle-class Iranian couple, explores death and old age, women in Iran and with touches of the violence that the earlier Beautiful City centred on. It is Farhadi’s most accomplished film to date, an understated, complex drama that was rightly acclaimed upon its release with, among many other accolades, an Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
In 2017, Farhadi won his second Academy Award under controversial circumstances. President Donald Trump’s short-lived ban on people entering the US from certain Muslim countries meant that the director was unable to attend the ceremony to accept the award that his film, The Salesman (2016), won. In response to the injustice, public screenings of the film were held in Trafalgar Square in London. The crowds that attended showed in what high esteem the director is held.
In a poignant acceptance speech for his first Oscar, Asghar Farhadi spoke of the ‘rich and ancient culture [of Iran] that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.’ His films are a means of brushing away that dust and while in 2013 he may have created a film called The Past, there is no doubt that Asghar Farhadi is a director looking to the future.
What to expect
Mystery, understated explorations of contemporary Iranian society, passions hidden by exterior decorum
A Separation (2011) is an understated exploration of a couple recently separated who struggle to adapt to their life apart, particularly in coping with the care of the husband’s father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. It won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2012, becoming the first Iranian film to do so. Asghar Farhadi’s direction is most effective in what it withholds from the viewer, leaving certain, pivotal events obfuscated until the film’s conclusion.
About Elly (2009) – The work that truly brought Farhadi to worldwide attention, About Elly fared well at the 2009 Berlinale, winning the Silver Bear for the director and a nomination for the Golden Bear. The film revolves around the mysterious disappearance of the titular Elly and certain secrets that are uncovered as a result. Characteristically for one of Farhadi’s films it is most effective for its mystery and its straightforward, compelling storytelling.
The Past (2013) – Farhadi returns to a family environment similar to that of A Separation, this time focusing on a couple who have been separated for some time but are reunited to finalise their divorce. Featuring some star power in Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim the film is not quite as notable as the director’s previous – primarily because it feels like he’s somewhat retreading old ground – but it is an accomplished work nevertheless
If you’re a fan
Fireworks Wednesday (2006) – The portrayals of the Iranian middle-class that characterise Asghar Farhadi’s films are represented once again in a story that revolves around the impending marriage of a young woman and the dispute between another married couple that she finds herself in the middle of. Taraneh Alidoosti’s performance as the young bride Rouhi is full of vitality and the contrast between her anticipation for the wedding and the resentment between the older couple provides an intriguing narrative.
And the rest
The Salesman (2016)
Beautiful City (2004)
Dancing in the Dust (2003)
Years active: 2000-present
Accolades: Berlin Golden Bear (A Separation) and Silver Bear (About Elly), Cannes Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (The Past)