Iran's Oscar winner scores Cannes hit with melodrama
Iranian Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi drew enthusiastic applause Friday for one of the most keenly awaited films at Cannes, with a Paris-set tale about love and its agonies.
"The Past" picks up many of the wrenching family themes and the taut drama of the Tehran-based "A Separation", which saw Farhadi scoop the Academy Award for best foreign-language feature last year.
Lead actress Berenice Bejo dials down the glamour of her role in another Oscar winner, "The Artist", to play Marie, a mother in Paris' multicultural suburbs who asks estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return from Iran to finalise their divorce.
In the meantime, Marie has invited her new boyfriend Samir, played by Tahar Rahim of 2009's "A Prophet", to take his young son and move in with her and her two daughters from another failed relationship.
But Ahmad's arrival upsets the delicate new balance, as it becomes clear that his connection with Marie is anything but ancient history.
The reasons he returned to Tehran four years before remain unclear.
But Farhadi hints that an inability to practise his profession in France drove him into a depression that he only escaped by leaving Marie.
Meanwhile Samir's own former wife is lying in a coma, suspended between life and death after a suicide attempt.
Marie's teenage daughter and a North African immigrant working illegally at Samir's dry-cleaning shop become catalysts in explosive events that force each character to reckon with the past.
Critics warmly welcomed the picture and took to Twitter to declare it a favourite when jury president Steven Spielberg hands out the awards on May 26.
Bejo in particular was singled out for a gripping performance as an ambivalent mother and partner.
Farhadi said his decision to set his film in France this time was for the sake of the story, not because of any crackdown on artists at home.
"I can work for years outside Iran but I do remain a very Iranian director. Of course, the set may change but I don't change," he told reporters, speaking through an interpreter.
He referred to Nobel-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, asking: "If (he) goes into a different country to write, is it fair to say the work is no longer Colombian?
"I don't think so. The nationality of the film is perhaps the link that each viewer forms with it."
He said that while Iran had official censorship, filmmakers in the West faced a kind of "economic censorship" in their struggle to get pictures made.
Farhadi told AFP later that winning the Oscar had resolved any financing problems for his projects and insisted that official restrictions in Iran were constantly changing.
"At times there are some openings that make things easier and then there are periods that are tougher," he said.
"I don't want this image to be given of censorship being strong and powerful and the directors being completely passive and just undergoing the situation that they live in. I think that creative power is always stronger than the censors' power. There are periods of victory or periods of failure but they still go on struggling."
He said despite possible red flags such as an unmarried couple living together, the film would be shown unchanged in Iran.
"I got the information just two days ago by the Iranian distributor of the film that they have the permission to show it as it is because the story takes place outside Iran," he said.
With an eye to recurring themes in his own work, Farhadi said couples' battlegrounds were infinitely rich cinematic material.
"So much suffering and pain are linked to a couple and yet it's different each time," he said. "I could spend my whole life talking about this subject."
After the global success of "The Artist", Bejo said she had received offers from Hollywood. But she said the chance to keep working in Paris with "one of the world's best directors" was more tempting.
She said the shifting perceptions in Farhadi's films, where things are never quite what they seem, had drawn her to the character of Marie.
"For an actress it was quite an extraordinary experience -- things appear true and then turn out to be completely different," she said.
© 2013 AFP