Cannes Check 2013: Asghar Farhadi’s ‘The Past’

(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Asghar Farhadi with “The Past.”)

The director: Asghar Farhadi (Iranian, 41 years old). Since making his debut feature, “Dancing in the Dust,” in 2003, Farhadi — who cut his teeth in theater and TV — has been steadily climbing the festival prestige ladder. It’s the Berlin Film Festival that can take credit for propelling him to the big league: “About Elly,” his fourth feature, was a hit there in 2009, laying the groundwork for the global arthouse sensation of “A Separation” two years later. Two years, innumerable international awards and an Oscar later, Cannes has declared him ready for his Competition close-up with his sixth film — and his first shot outside his homeland. 

The talent: When Farhadi was making the Oscar rounds last year, you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that his next film would pair him with one of the Best Supporting Actress nominees on the very same circuit. Melissa McCarthy’s day will surely come, but this time it’s Argentine-born Bérénice Bejo — getting to use her vocal cords in her first lead role since “The Artist” — who gets the privilege. (The role was originally given to an over-committed Marion Cotillard, who has two films herself in Cannes this year.) Joining Bejo is French-Algerian star Tahar Rahim, who landed plaudits for his breakout turn in “A Prophet” four years ago, and more recently impressed in last year’s Un Certain Regard hit “Our Children.” Completing the film’s lead triangle is Iranian actor and filmmaker Ali Mosaffa (husband of “A Separation” star Leila Hatami, incidentally), in his first collaboration with his compatriot. The film’s supporting cast includes Cesar-nominated young actress Sabrina Ouazani (“Of Gods and Men,” “The Secret of the Grain”) and Italian veteran Valeria Cavalli.

As with “A Separation,” Farhadi takes a solo writing credit; producer Alexandre Mallet-Guy’s short but evidently hand-picked list of credits includes “Taxidermia” and “Cold Souls.” Below the line, it’s a mix of old and new collaborators for the director. “A Separation” cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari is back on board, but the editing scissors have been handed to gifted, Oscar-nominated Frenchwoman Juliette Welfling (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Rust and Bone”). In a less obvious connection, Welfling also worked on “The Hunger Games,” as did Franco-Russian musician Evgueni Galperine — who composed the score here with his father Youli. Production designer Claude Lenoir’s credits include Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy.

The pitch: Farhadi’s films are linked by their subtle investigation of politics via fragile domestic conflicts, their knotty but concentrated relationship networks betraying his training as a theater director. “The Past” looks to be no exception, even if this French production transports Farhadi’s concerns beyond home borders. Like “A Separation,” it’s a breakup drama at its base. Bejo and Mosaffa play a couple — French and Iranian, respectively — whose marriage dissolves when he decides to leave Paris and return to Tehran. After fours’ separation, he returns to France to finalize their divorce to find his wife living with another man (Rahim) and maintaining a tense relationship with their young daughter. The trailer for the 130-minute film leads us to expect another tough, even-handed drama of emotional and cultural conflict: it promises to draw as many adverse reactions from Iranian conservatives as “A Separation” did, and has already been screened for local censors. No US distributor yet, but it seems like a good fit for Sony Pictures Classics.

The pedigree: Farhadi may be a Cannes freshman, but he arrives in Competition as a member of the new auteur elite. (Hey, last year Time magazine even named him one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People.) After earning his flying wings in Berlin — Best Director for “About Elly” and the Golden Bear for “A Separation” — and landing the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (as well as a writing nomination) for his extravagantly acclaimed last effort, admittance to the Croisette club always seemed likely for his follow-up, particularly with a French production. How “The Past” fares will go some way towards determining whether he’s in there for good. 

The buzz: Expectations are high for all the obvious reasons, though there’s always a degree of nervousness when a well-regarded filmmaker moves into a new territory: will Farhadi’s fine-tuned ear for dialogue and nuanced argument, plus his delicate touch with actors, serve him as well in a French-language film? I’m hearing encouraging early whispers, but matching the reception for “A Separation” is no easy assignment.

The odds: Sight-unseen consensus currently has the film among the frontrunners for the Palme d’Or; critic and oddsmaker Neil Young currently has it in second place with odds of 6-1. It’s hard not to agree at this point: in recent years, the top prize has usually gone to an auteur with an established reputation and following, though the prospect of rewarding Farhadi on his Cannes debut still has a certain freshness to it that the jury may find appealing. Meanwhile, if “The Past” aims for the heart as directly as “A Separation” did, jury president Steven Spielberg would seem a likely sympathizer. If not the Palme, it’s easy to foresee awards for acting, direction or screenplay in particular. 

The premiere date: Friday, May 17.

In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up one of the starriest entries in this year’s Competition lineup: James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”


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