The films of the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi keep us guessing in all kinds of interesting ways, but also make us wonder whether guessing is what we should be engaged in. The questions the plots may or may not answer are not the same as the ones that keep bobbing up in the narrative gaps or on the margins. The act of lying or withholding the truth, for example, is almost always part of the story, but what sort of act is this, what purpose does it serve or betray? It’s as if the truth, whatever it is, will invariably harm someone. The snag is that lies will harm someone else, and words or deeds without harm seem to have been banished from this universe.
Because of issues to do with distribution rights, Farhadi’s recent films have been reaching UK and US audiences in a rather erratic way: first, A Separation (2011), which won an Oscar in 2012; then The Past (2013); and most recently, About Elly (2009), which was released in the UK in 2012, and in the US only last month. Critics have thought that The Past, set in a small town in France rather than in Iran, as the other two are, shows a weakening of intensity. I think it’s less complex than the others, but Farhadi is still exploring the same zones of trouble with great delicacy, and the performances of Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim as the couple who have got together to agree on a divorce, and can’t find themselves or each other in the tangles they thought they had left behind, are amazing. The cinematography, by Mahmoud Kalari here as in A Separation, is very subtle, full of shots that feel like the whispering of secrets.
The most dramatic visual moment in these films, however, arises in About Elly, shot by Hossein Jafarian, also very subtly but with a touch of melodrama that suits the theme. Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a woman who appears to be in her twenties, is running along a beach flying a child’s kite. We see the sky, the sea, occasionally the kite; we get medium close-ups of her happy face from various angles, very rarely her full body. The sea sounds menacing on the soundtrack, a little louder than realism requires. We are delighted to linger with the beautiful shots, and we are also a little impatient, anxious to get back to the story, to everything that is excluded from these frames. There are three children playing on the beach, are they all right? Elly was worried and frustrated a moment ago, what will happen when she stops running and laughing?
We can’t know it at this point but this is the last time we see her alive. One of the children is drowning and is rescued with great difficulty. Elly has disappeared. Did she try to save the child and die in the process? Did she leave the house and return to her worries, whatever they were? We all have our guesses, and I was sure she was going to reappear. But the rest of the film is not really about Elly, it is about how her friends deal with her absence.
The friends are three couples and a recently divorced man, all determined to have a good time at the seaside for a few days. They have rented a villa, and invited Elly, whom they hardly know, as a partner for the spare man. Only one of them is aware that Elly is engaged to someone else, although she has been trying to get out of the commitment for some time. By the strictest rules of her society, she shouldn’t be there, and if she has left rather than drowned, this will be the reason. Racing with the kite, and enjoying the company of the man from Germany, is the kind of holiday from obligation that she longs for and believes she should not have.
There have been conservative readings of this storyline. Elly’s misconduct, her illicit happiness, is drastically punished by her drowning, if she has drowned, as all the friends become convinced that she has. There are hints of this line of thinking within the film: some of the friends murmur about fate and what Elly’s behaviour deserves. The same argument would include the desperate remorse of Sepideh, who invited Elly in spite of knowing about her engagement. These women broke the rules and life showed them the dire consequences.
The film as a whole suggests something less religious and far more interesting: that all acts, virtuous or not, seemingly trivial or seemingly significant, will have disastrous consequences if we are unlucky. Those consequences in turn will find us out as if they were designed to reveal us to ourselves, although the only god anywhere on view here is chance.
A Separation invites a quieter but perhaps deeper meditation on the same secular theology. Here a Tehran couple called Nader (played by Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) have separated because she wants to leave the country and he feels he can’t abandon his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), is caught in the quarrel between the parents, indeed is the chief stake in that quarrel. At the end of the film a judge tells her she must decide with whom she is going to live. She says she has decided but would rather not tell the judge in the presence of her parents. The parents leave and sit on either side of the corridor outside the judge’s room. We watch them sitting for quite a while as the credits come up. We don’t return to the girl and her decision, the film ends. We know the girl has chosen between two kinds of integrity and affection, that of the determined mother and the (as he feels) insulted father. In the context, her decision is bound to be a moral verdict on the two of them. But it is a verdict we have to imagine.
At the centre of the film is a disputed causality, as in About Elly. Here Nader gets angry with Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman who looks after his father, accuses her of stealing money, and violently pushes her about. The next day Nader and Simin learn that Razieh is in hospital recovering from a miscarriage. Did they know she was pregnant? Did they know she had taken the job only because her husband was alternating between jail and unemployment? Nader, who faces a one to three-year term of imprisonment for killing the foetus, insists that he knew nothing of the pregnancy or the other circumstances. He is lying, but in the end he tells the truth to his daughter. Razieh is also hiding something. She had left Nader’s father alone, his wrist tied to his bed, while she went to the hospital for a check-up. This is the chief source of Nader’s anger. But the reason she went for the check-up was that she had been hit by a car the day before when she went to rescue the father who had wandered out onto the street: a far more plausible cause of the miscarriage. Her husband wants her not to talk about this, just as Nader doesn’t want to talk about his knowledge of the woman’s condition.
This sounds rather cluttered in the telling, but it is impeccably laid out in the movie, and the temptations of backward logic are everywhere. If Simin had not wanted to leave, Nader would not have had to employ anyone to look after his father. If her husband had not been so deep in debt Razieh would not have taken the job. If the father had not wandered out, she wouldn’t have been hit when she went to look for him. If she hadn’t been hit …
The powerful thought here is not that things could have been different. Of course they could have. The thought, as I began to suggest, is that events create and cancel possibilities, and when these are bleak or bad we are rarely able fully to face them. And if we can face them, our friends or family can’t. In a society of angry men and imaginative women – to simplify the gender-play of these movies far too drastically – there will always be harsh rules to invoke as a defence, and inventive attempts to get around those rules in order to stay sane or alive. Conversely, in men and in women, there will be ideas of honour and loyalty that cannot fare well in a world of complicated social practice.