Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made outside of his native Iran.

After the huge and entirely merited success of his previous film A Separation, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keenly awaited films at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. But it only ended up getting the consolation prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite correctly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot better than that would suggest. Bejo has asked her estranged husband to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, without filling him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slowly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daughter is so unhappy with her mother, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Separation, Farhadi’s ability to carefully tell his story, slowly revealing its meticulously positioned plot points is unrivalled. And all the performances are outstanding. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inexplicably lauded The Artist reviewed here, is a revelation. Ali Mossafa is superb as her former husband, but most remarkable of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three children – the two children plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extraordinary performances that French cinema somehow excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tradition of films from the likes of Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of children, rendering their vistas all the more moving  because of the performances they manage miraculously to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disingenuous to pretend that The Past weren’t ever so slightly disappointing. The momentum dissipates in in its final quarter as the focus shifts from the former husband to the new man. And instead of building to some sort of conclusion, it quietly comes to a halt.

By any other standards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farhadi, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trailer for The Past here.

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“About Elly”, Yet Another Superb Iranian Film.

2009_about_elly_0011After the huge success of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), viewers in the West have now been given a chance to catch up with the film he made before it, About Elly (’09).

A Separation was Farhadi’s fifth film, and was quietly brilliant. Unsurprisingly it swept the boards, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2011 as well a Berlin’s prestigious Golden Bear, and was reviewed by me earlier here.

About Elly is yet further confirmation that Iran is one of the most exciting centres for cinema in the world – you can see the trailer here. Film makers like Farhadi and Jafar Panahi are spearheading a second wave who have now arrived to supplement what was going on there in the 80s and 90s. You can read about that in my review of Panahi’s This Is Not A Film here. Who by the way is presumably still under house arrest there.

This Is Not A FilmAbout Elly‘s opening 20 minutes or so meander along in an apparently sleepy fashion. Three or four pairs of middle class Iranians have travelled to the coast for a holiday break. But then out of the blue, something happens. And then we and they spend the rest of the film trying to piece together what it was.

It’s not a thriller though. It’s a small, personal drama, in which the tension arises from the little lies that the friends begin telling each other as a result of the event that they are all trying to unravel.

FRENCH211-2Not a million miles from the terrain covered by Antonioni in L’Avventura, though without the latter’s formal rigour and austere beauty. Rather, as with A Separation, it’s closer in tone to Bergman. Farhadi is less interested in form and space, and choses instead to immerse himself in the world of his characters and the stories that enfold them.

And once again, those kind of comparisons are fully merited. About Elly is a riveting, engrossing and at once beguiling story. And Farhadi’s ability to reel you in by withholding story points until the very last moment makes him one of the most exciting film makers in world cinema.

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Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Kenneth Lonergan moved from the theatre into the cinema in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the memorable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-provoking and challenging drama came from independent films produced in the U.S.

But by then, all the interesting people working in cinema had begun moving into television. Everyone it seems except Lonergan. But as brilliant a drama as You Can Count On Me is – and it really is – it isn’t actually cinema. It’s essentially filmed drama.

The good news is that Lonergan has learnt, and learnt substantially from that first effort. What we have in Margaret (see the trailer here) is a big bold and glorious piece designed for the silver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s finally seeing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heaven. This happily is one of those rare exceptions. You can read all about what happened here in Joel Lovell’s excellent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lonergan couldn’t bring himself to edit it down to a conventional length, and the whole thing ended up in court.

Which is hugely disappointing, because for its first two hours Margaret is flawless. And though it does begin to sag somewhat in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most memorable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the precocious, pretty Jewish 17 year old ensconced in her privileged enclave in New York, convinced that the world revolves around her – which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is brilliant as the intellectually vibrant but confused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all familiar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Separation.

Very few of the story’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a theatre actress complains about how pretentious people who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be funny. So we find ourselves peering into the lives of legitimately articulate, introspective people prone to existential angst, trying to come to terms with the world they live in against the backdrop of a skyline devastated by events beyond their control.

The film only loses it way ever so slightly when we leave her classmates in the final hour to focus on the legal battle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s reasonably obvious where that was all going to end up, and some of those later scenes could comfortably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much story is handled much more frugally, you only have to have a look at the wonderful A Separation (reviewed earlier here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Margaret.

But this is but a minor quibble. This is a serious film and major work from one of the most exciting individuals working in the medium. If he can marry the discipline of his writing from You Can Count On Me (see the trailer here), which he can and does for most of Margaret, with the visual panache and sonic invention of the latter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the interview he gave with Richard Brody in the New Yorker here.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not.

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gifted Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and forbidden from make films for 20 years.

Films of his such as The Circle from 2000 and Offside from 2006 had suggested that here was yet another Iranian film maker who seemed to have successfully found a way to gently critique the land of his birth, especially its attitude to women, but to do so in such a way that the authorities were begrudgingly prepared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and forbidden from in any way being seen to make films, he invited a film maker friend of his around to record a day in his life. Lightheartedly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be making. It’s a story of a girl imprisoned in her own home, forbidden by her traditional parents from leaving to pursue her studies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, all levity suddenly evaporates, and the hopelessness of his situation finally dawns on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And suddenly, the title’s no longer funny or mischievous, but quietly tragic. He might never make a film ever again. And he’s probably on his way to gaol, for years.

Something quite remarkable happened to Iranian cinema about 20 years ago. Its natural mode had always been that of neorealism. So when we see the boy impatiently asking an elder for directions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man continues preparing his pipe before stirring himself to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but nothing ever really changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before eventually addressing your question – which by the way, and unsurprisingly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarostami made a completely different kind of film, with the brilliant Close Up. It follows a man who impersonates another major Iranian film maker, Mohsan Makhmalbaf. But as you watch what appears to be a documentary, you realize that a lot of what you’re seeing must in fact have been re-enacted. And the film’s subject, truth and lies, is mirrored by the form it takes to tell its story, as it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle fact from fiction.

The following year in ’91 he made a documentary cum feature film about the actors from Where Is My Friend’s Home called Life And Nothing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film and the tension between how they treated one another on and off set. In other words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmalbaf, he of Close Up, made a remarkable film about a film maker making a film about an incident in his youth, when he’d stabbed a policeman. But the film, provocatively titled A Moment of Innocence, starred the actual policeman playing his older self, advising the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remarkably of all, Makhmalbaf’s 18 year old daughter Samira then made a stunning film called The Apple in ’98, about which I’ll say nothing other than I defy anyone to unpick which scenes were fictionalized and which bits actually happened.

So when we see the forlorn Panahi pointing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apartment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a particularly poignant image. Here are two Iranian film makers engaged in a yet another fascinating exploration of artifice and the film making process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordinary people. It’s an artistic conversation that we in the rest of the world have been hypnotized by and have watched and listened to in awe and wonder.

What an amazing country, to have produced so many serous film makers producing such an extraordinary variety of films. A Separation for instance, is a completely different kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet another major film maker quietly questioning the country he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domestic pride has been transformed into one of national shame. The authorities in Iran appear to be incapable of seeing the wood from the trees. And instead of celebrating one of their many, brilliant film makers, they’re sending one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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