Everything we think we know is wrong, and every circumstance and person is far too many-sided for us to begin reliably to assess. This isn't a recipe for confidence, and it certainly flies in the face of the entertainment industry's conventional wisdom that we need Hollywood endings and clear-cut heroes and villains. But it's part of what makes Asghar Farhadi's films, most notably his last two, "A Separation" and "The Past," so extravagantly sophisticated, as well as such invaluable guides for anyone dealing with his homeland, Iran. Farhadi's film "About Elly" was just released in the U.S. this month (released in Iran in 2009).
There's little in the way of typical plot making in the films--nothing more, really, than classic, universal family conundrums of older parents and kids and break-ups. But Farhadi routinely has one on the edge of one's seat through more than 130 minutes, as happily unable to come up with any solutions or definitive judgments as after some perplexity or epiphany in life.
"The Past," for example, opens with an attractive young woman (with a bandage on her arm) in Paris, awaiting the arrival of a man coming through Customs. Each smiles and mouths something to the other through panes of heavy glass but it's the glass that separates the fact that neither can hear what the other is saying that proves to be much more revealing than any warm gesture. These aren't, we'll soon find, long-separated lovers as they seem to be. Yet what they are exactly neither we nor they can begin to say. The man is returning to sign divorce papers from the woman but neither seems quite sure whether he -- or she -- wants to make the separation final.
As the woman starts driving into town, chatting to her old love with the easy familiarity of a longtime partner -- and the edgy, unabating barbs of a longtime combatant -- we come to see that, though she's come to collect him, she is eager not to host him. Meanwhile, he has made no plans to stay anywhere other than in her house, as if he can simply move back into the home she shares with her daughter.
We're only five minutes into the movie, but already everything is provisional, shifting with every new sentence. And as we watch the woman, Marie, all fidgets and flirtatious smiles, try to read Ahmad, at once warm and clearly guarded (wounded in his own way perhaps), we seem to be seeing each of them move forward and backward at the same time. Not only does every exchange advance the story; it also works to erase the assumption that the previous exchange has set us up for. Thus, we are propelled into an even deeper sense of how much we can't be sure of and how precarious every assumption will be. It is part of the peculiar excitement of Farhadi's films that they're constantly, restlessly pushing forward. And yet, they're really moving in a circular direction, like one of those impossibly complex designs on a Persian carpet inside an Iranian mosque that speaks for both furious energy and a serene refusal of all fixities.
Every detail and exchange, moreover, reflects and deepens larger, less visible uncertainties. As the woman pulls out of her parking place in the airport, she brakes so abruptly that the two almost crash into another car. Her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband starts advising her on how to drive and then, because of her injured arm, finds himself obliged to change gears on her behalf. When she leaves the car idling in the street, in order to collect her daughter from school, he has to take the wheel as a traffic cop appears. Each member of the couple is vying to be in the driver's seat, we notice, even as neither knows how much he or she wants to accelerate or slam on the brakes.
It's for such reasons that I wish every policy maker trying to work with Iran could school himself in Farhadi's movies and see how every new step and revelation leaves one only deeper in an ever more bewildering maze. What is gambit and what sincere, where devil's advocacy ends and genuine unexpectedness begins, is hard for anyone (even those orchestrating all the moves) ever to know.
After 27 years of living in Japan, I had long assumed that no country could be harder to understand than my adopted home. The Japanese are famously elusive; they're highly economical with their words and tend to give away little in gesture or facial expression. Then I went to Iran, and the people I met there made the Japanese seem positively transparent by comparison. The people of Isfahan were constantly talking, gesturing, spinning brilliant and beautiful poetic arguments and riffs, and yet the more they expressed, the less I could tell where they stood. Every dazzling sentence might have been the product of either rhetoric or strategy -- and one strategy might have been honesty. In every case, it reminded me how the most telling sentence in "The Past" is an incredulous, "You thought?"
None of this has ever made Iran easy for its neighbors or wary enemies to anticipate. Who can say why, two years after George W. Bush named Iran to "the axis of evil," the head of that country's security council was one of the few leaders around the world to come out publicly in support of Bush's re-election? What do we make of those Iranians who assure us that Ayatollah Khomeini was in fact a British stooge (why else would he broadcast in exile on the BBC?)? Does the leadership even know what it's saying or doing, or is it just playing an elaborate game to keep everyone, not least its many enemies at home, off-guard?
At one level, Farhadi's films make geography irrelevant. "A Separation" (2011), his fifth feature film, is set entirely in Tehran but its dramas -- looking after an elderly parent, trying to find a reliable daycare person, going to a judge to settle a divorce -- are instantly recognizable to viewers in Los Angeles or Tokyo. The main female character looks like an Islamic migrant raised in a banlieue, her ex-husband is returning from Tehran, her new boyfriend is from North Africa, and her daughter's father is in Brussels. Yet proper names soon disappear, and we're quickly in the crazy, chaotic tangle of many a modern household, where kids don't know which bed to sleep in and seek solace only in the one steady figure to whom, in fact, they're not related. Without even seeming to care, Farhadi renders most of our simplistic assumptions about "East" and "West" -- the codes and ways of Revolutionary Iran and of the liberal West -- beside the point.
At the same time, the sensibility here could only be Iranian, even though "The Past" was shot in French and set in a nondescript suburb of Paris. On the one hand, the filmmaker is quietly reminding us how much such stories are universal; on the other, he's speaking from a sensibility rooted in a distant culture that thrives on ambiguity. Inner and outer are generally at odds. Motivations are never what they seem. And while there are no visible veils, we see any number of invisible ones, though how many we couldn't say.
The wet paint on the house through which the characters shadow one another makes every small movement treacherous -- yet move (and speak) is all that every character does. When Ahmad's suitcase is delivered late from his arriving flight, it's broken, and we don't know whom exactly to blame. Even the returning Ahmad's gallant gesture of bringing a gift for two children not his own becomes a source of vexation when the kids open his broken suitcase in advance, leaving him with the classically unanswerable question: how much should -- or can -- one discipline someone else's child?
As we watch the returning soon-to-be-ex husband in the opening scenes, not sure whether to turn right or left (he's forgotten where home is); as we see the kids keep switching rooms, as if exiled in some sense deeper than their nationalities; as we confront roads that, as in "A Separation," look murderous to cross, with cars hurtling past in every direction, we're taken into a way of viewing the world in which every view is false. "What do you mean by knowing everything?," we hear at one point. Even Ahmad's teenage stepdaughter upbraids her wary almost-father, saying, "You shouldn't speak with such certainty."
Having begun with a separating couple reuniting through panes of glass, the film ends with a different couple holding hands on what could be a deathbed. Are they coming together or saying goodbye? It's impossible to tell, yet again, when the characters in the film, and all of us watching them, are at once trying to escape the past, yet far from settled in the present.
Turn to Lausanne (where negotiations with Iran took place), I would say, and you'll see the same.