By Giles Harvey
February 2, 2019
Asghar Farhadi, the most successful director in the history of Iranian cinema, may have little interest in global politics, but global politics are interested in him. On Jan. 27, 2017, less than a week after “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s seventh feature film, was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language movie, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Muslim ban. Under its terms, citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, Iran among them, were barred from entering the United States for 90 days — apparently the time it would take the new president to figure out “what the hell is going on.” For Farhadi, a connoisseur of human particularity whose nuanced, open-ended films about the cultural fault lines within Iran have been embraced by audiences around the world, Trump’s order was an offense both moral and intellectual. In a statement released two days later, he announced his decision to boycott the Oscars and also alluded to the history of “reciprocal humiliation” that lay behind present-day American-Iranian hostilities. Given the circumstances (the collective punishment of an entire religious group), that “reciprocal” showed extraordinary equanimity — not that anyone who had seen the film for which Farhadi was nominated, a painstaking psychological inquest into the rival claims of reciprocally humiliated parties, would have been surprised.
Iran is 11 ½ hours ahead of Los Angeles (or, if you are going by the Persian calendar, 622 years behind), so it was early morning, Tehran time, when Farhadi sat down, along with his family and a group of close friends, to watch the 89th Academy Awards. Iranian state TV, which is heavily censored by the country’s political and religious authorities, doesn’t broadcast the ceremony, but the Farhadis, like most of their compatriots, own an illegal satellite dish that picks up foreign programming. (Farhadi is married to the film and television director Parisa Bakhtavar, whose cinematic debut, “Tambourine,” released in 2008, centers on a young couple trying to raise cash by installing satellite dishes in a Tehran apartment building.) These dishes aren’t always reliable, however, and on the morning in question, Farhadi’s was on the fritz. A repairman roused from his sleep was unable to fix the problem. Finally, a friend on the other side of town who was streaming the show using a VPN managed to set up a remote connection between his computer and Farhadi’s laptop, and the group huddled around. The feed went live just in time for them to see Shirley MacLaine and Charlize Theron announce that the Oscar was going to “The Salesman.” When Farhadi spoke to his downstairs neighbor the following day, she said she thought there had been an earthquake, such was the commotion coming from the director’s apartment.
Farhadi had asked two Iranian-Americans, Firouz Naderi, a former NASA scientist, and Anousheh Ansari, a tech entrepreneur and the first female space tourist, to represent him at the ceremony. (Naderi said he believed they were chosen to make the point that borders are invisible from outer space.) As Farhadi’s living room in Tehran quieted down, his surrogates in Los Angeles took the stage. He was not there, Ansari explained in a speech written by Farhadi, “out of respect for the people of my country” and the six other nations targeted by Trump’s executive order. By dividing the world into “us” and “our enemies,” the speech continued, Trump was creating “a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” Farhadi’s words were warmly applauded within the Dolby Theater, but the conservative commentariat was less receptive.
“We give an Iranian filmmaker an award & he writes us a lecture on our government,” Lauren Cooley, an editor for The Washington Examiner, posted on Twitter. “How about he go lecture his own Iranian leaders?” Cooley and other such pundits may not have realized it, but they sounded like no one so much as their conservative counterparts in Iran, where Farhadi is often accused of pandering to international audiences by presenting an overly negative image of his homeland.
The truth is naturally far more complicated. Farhadi has learned, as he says, to speak quietly in his films, and part of this involves trusting his audience to listen for his meanings. In the stark opening shot of “A Separation” (2011), which also won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, a man and a woman, the woman wearing a head scarf (as all female citizens of Iran are required to do in public), look straight into the camera and explain their plight. After years of marriage, they are separating; each is seeking custody of their only child, a 12-year-old girl. As they make their competing arguments (the woman wants to leave the country because she believes their daughter will have a better life abroad; the man says he has to stay to look after his father, who has Alzheimer’s), we realize they are in an Islamic divorce court. The person being addressed is a judge — although it is also, in a way, the viewer, whom Farhadi always enlists as a kind of juror in his moral procedurals. “As a mother, I’d prefer my daughter not grow up in these circumstances,” the woman says. “What circumstances?” the baffled judge, still only a disembodied voice, asks. He doesn’t receive an answer — Farhadi, a master of pacing and suggestive omission, has already ushered us into the next scene — but Iranians, and those familiar with the social conditions under which Iranian women live, will know all too well the circumstances she’s referring to.
“I believe that art in the face of censorship is like water in the face of a stone,” Farhadi has said. “The water will find a way to flow around it.”
“Everybody Knows,” Farhadi’s latest film, will be released in the United States on Feb. 8, but the director won’t be coming over for the opening: He hasn’t been here since Trump took office. “The extremists, the hard-liners — in Iran, in the United States — are very similar wherever you go,” Farhadi, who is 46, told me in December. We were in Spain, in the back of a black S.U.V., barreling down an autopista toward Torrelaguna, a village an hour north of Madrid, where “Everybody Knows” was shot. When it became clear that continuing American-Iranian hostilities would make it unfeasible for me to meet him in Tehran, Farhadi, with an obligingness I would come to recognize as characteristic, offered to fly to Spain to be interviewed.
Tehran to Madrid is a journey Farhadi has been making regularly since 2013, when he first approached Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem with the idea of making a film about a family from rural Spain whose secrets are blown open during the course of a wedding weekend. At the time, he had just finished making “The Past,” a French production and the first of his movies to be set outside Iran. Most directors would be wary of taking on projects in a foreign country, let alone a foreign continent, where they don’t speak the language and know little of the native culture. Farhadi, a cosmopolitan universalist, shows no such trepidation. “The taste of love and the taste of hate are everywhere the same,” he told me. Farhadi likes to cite the director Amir Naderi, whose 1984 film “The Runner” was the first post-revolutionary Iranian movie to achieve international renown: “This and this are the same everywhere in the world,” Farhadi said, using his right hand to slap and then to stroke the back of his left. “This” — the first gesture — “is violence, and this” — the second — “is kindness. And cinema is based on these two principles.”
The day was cold and bright, and as the industrial outskirts of Madrid fell away and the snow-dusted Sierra de Guadarrama mountains began to rise up on either side of us, Farhadi turned to the window to take in the view. He is short and compact. His dark hair has receded to the crown of his head, but in a way that makes him look worldly and dapper. He wears glasses with photochromic lenses (at one point I glanced up from my notebook to realize, with a small start, that I could no longer see his eyes) and has a somewhat rakish goatee that is filigreed with silver. He dresses much like the liberal, middle-class Iranians in his films, which is to say, much like liberal, middle-class people everywhere: bluejeans, red crew-neck sweater, a three-quarter-length black overcoat. Although he speaks decent-enough English, he opted to communicate by means of an interpreter, Shahram Ruzbehan, a burly Iranian expatriate in a gray tweed flat cap, who sat across from us. Also present was Ahmad Taheri, another Iranian living in Spain, who served as one of Farhadi’s interpreters on the set of “Everybody Knows.”
Like many of his previous films, Farhadi’s latest turns on a traumatic incident that occurs offscreen. In “About Elly” (2009), it is the disappearance and possible drowning of the title character. In “The Salesman,” it is, or at least seems to be, a sexual assault whose precise nature remains unclear, in part because the victim is too disturbed to talk about it. In “Everybody Knows,” the teenage daughter of one of the wedding guests is abducted. As you might expect, this leads to a good hour and a half of engrossing panic, but Farhadi is less interested in plot twists than in the psychological revelations they precipitate.
“To get to know my characters, I need a crisis,” he explained in his methodical manner. Take a group of people in an elevator, he said. If the elevator goes from the first to the 16th floor without a problem, then no one is going to get to know anyone else. But if the elevator gets stuck between the 15th and 16th floors for half an hour — well, then they may begin to get acquainted. “In crises, we show our true character,” he added.
Just then, we were faced with a miniature crisis of our own. A highway-patrol officer in wraparound sunglasses and a neon yellow windbreaker, who was lurking by the side of the road, decided to flag us over for a random vehicle check. After briefly quizzing our driver, the officer had a peek through the back window and noticed that Farhadi, Ruzbehan and Taheri were not wearing their seatbelts. This seemed to seal our fate. The officer radioed for instructions, or possibly backup. When it became clear that the full weight of the Guardia Civil was being brought to bear on us — or, at any rate, that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for some time — Farhadi seized the opportunity, as he often did during the days we spent together, to step outside and have a cigarette.
It isn’t difficult to imagine another titan of world cinema (a Von Trier, say) having a do-you-realize-whom-you’re-talking-to-here moment. Farhadi appeared instead to relish the mild absurdity of the situation. “In Iran you can at least talk to the police,” he said with a smile, bracing his shoulders against the brisk wind. They come on strong, he explained, but soon they’ll be joking and sending you away with just a warning. After a while, he turned to the subject of censorship. “Each director finds his own way of dealing with it,” he said. “It’s claimed restriction can lead to even greater creativity. I believe that’s true in the short term, but in the long term it destroys creativity.” He somberly enumerated the great Iranian directors who had gone into exile — Naderi, Bahram Beyzaie, Parviz Kimiavi — some of whom, though Farhadi didn’t say so himself, have suffered an artistic decline as a result. In 2010, Farhadi’s close friend Jafar Panahi, whose films about marginalized Iranians had long angered the regime, was charged with producing anti-government propaganda. He received a six-year prison sentence, was banned from filmmaking for 20 years and was forbidden to leave the country. (The prison sentence, however, was never enforced, and Panahi, in his typically defiant fashion, continues to make underground films, which are released abroad and circulate on the internet. His latest, “3 Faces,” will open in the United States in March.)
Farhadi’s own success — acclaim at home and abroad, the freedom to make movies with A-list stars anywhere in the world — seemed all the more remarkable alongside these unhappy destinies. But I wondered how secure his position in Iran really was — whether he felt vulnerable to the same fate as Panahi, or if he was ever tempted, like so many of his characters, by the dream of a permanent move to the West.
Before I could ask him, Taheri, who had been quietly conferring with the officer, returned with an update. Farhadi, as a foreign visitor, would be shown leniency, he informed us. But he and Ruzbehan would each be fined 100 euros. We stood there a moment in silence, absorbing the news.
“This is more serious than censorship,” Farhadi said finally, and everyone laughed.
Farhadi was born in Iran’s central Isfahan Province in 1972 — a bit like being born in Volgograd, Russia, in 1910. By the time he turned 8, his hometown, Homayoon Shahr, had been renamed Khomeini Shahr, for the leader of the 1979 revolution that brought down the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy and, after the idea of liberal democracy was briefly entertained, replaced it with a theocratic republic every bit as paranoid and repressive. One day, Farhadi’s eldest brother didn’t return from school: He had run away to join the army’s volunteer forces. Months passed before Farhadi’s parents were able to locate him and bring him home. Farhadi himself, inflamed by patriotic feeling, often wished he were a few years older so that he could join, too.
During the conflict with Iraq, Iranian cinemas would sometimes play old Allied propaganda films about World War II. (The idea was to stir up nationalistic sentiment by encouraging a conflation of Hussein with Hitler.) One such film was playing when Farhadi paid his first visit to a movie theater, shortly before the war began. Along with several cousins, he took the bus from Khomeini Shar to Isfahan. They arrived late and walked in halfway through the picture, but Farhadi was captivated nevertheless. The protagonist was a teenage member of a resistance group in Eastern Europe; in the end, he assassinates the Nazi villain. For days afterward, Farhadi found himself thinking about the scenes he missed, trying to reconstruct them in his imagination. “It made me feel as though I were actually making the movie myself,” he told me the day before our trip to Torrelaguna. His own enigmatic narratives involve the viewer in a similarly collaborative experience. “I don’t want the film to end for an audience,” he has said. “I want the audience to leave the film with it still in their minds, asking questions.”
Cinema has long been a front in Iran’s fierce political struggles. The so-called New Wave, which first broke in the early 1960s, was inspired by opposition not just to filmfarsi, the formulaic, Hollywood-influenced movies that dominated theaters, but also, some have argued, to the shah’s whole project of enforced Westernization. These were the years when Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s 1962 essay, “Occidentosis,” a fervent call for Iranian cultural independence, galvanized resentment toward the United States-backed royal family and presaged the coming revolution. Farhadi grew up on the New Wave and warmly acknowledges its influence. Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow” (1969), an austere yet deeply empathetic case study in the brutalizing effects of a tragic loss, is an obvious precursor to Farhadi’s stories about the self-destructive behavior of men in extremis. At the same time, he feels estranged from the anti-Western passions that have been associated with the movement. When the New Wave came up in conversation, he was keen to emphasize its continuity with what was happening in other national cinemas at the time, as well as its debt to the Italian neorealists of the 1940s. “In Japan, France, Germany, even in the United States, we see the same reaction,” he said. What all these directors had in common was a desire to shake off artifice and get closer to real life.
Farhadi’s family owned a grocery store, where he often helped out after school. This put them squarely in the middle class. Although his parents weren’t themselves deeply cultured, they encouraged Farhadi’s artistic aspirations. When he was 13, he made his first short film using an eight-millimeter camera belonging to the Young Cinema Society, a government-sponsored organization established shortly after the revolution, with offices in every major city. (When Khomeini came to power, he considered banning cinema altogether — its mimicry of God’s creative act seemed a form of blasphemy — before recognizing the medium’s potential as a propaganda tool.) Farhadi’s film tells the story of two friends who find a radio on their way to school one day and, after an argument about who gets to keep it, decide that each will have custody for a day at a time. Because what they’re most interested in is a serialized drama that is broadcast every evening, the radio turns out to be of no use to either of them, and they throw it away. Already Farhadi was thinking about the difficulty of compromise and the power of interrupted stories.
The young director was intent on studying cinema as an undergraduate, but the admissions office at the University of Tehran decided he was better suited to dramatic arts. What at the time felt like a setback would prove to be decisive in forming his sensibility. From Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, Farhadi learned what no film had quite shown him — how to construct a story without a hero, or rather, a story in which (as in life) everyone thinks of him- or herself as the hero. These European dramatists, writing at a time of rapid social change about men and women painfully suspended between an old way of life and a new one, also presented Farhadi with a mirror of the Iranian middle class at the end of the Khomeini era. In the years after the ayatollah’s death in 1989, there was widespread hope that the country would move in a more liberal direction, easing its draconian religious laws and seeking reconciliation with the West. Those hopes would be continually deferred.
In the early ’90s, while he was still in college, Farhadi began writing serialized radio plays for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the Iranian BBC. They were so popular that he was soon fielding offers from TV producers. In person, Farhadi is humble, generous and attentive; a number of the actors he has worked with told me of the calm, supportive atmosphere he creates on set. But he also knows how to look after his own interests. After several of his scripts were turned into hit programs, he told his producer at the IRIB that he would continue to provide them with material on one condition: that he do the directing himself. A deal was struck, and at 23 Farhadi was writing, directing and producing his own TV show, “A Tale of a City.” It followed a team of fictional documentarians who, in each episode, made a program about a family or group struggling with a different social issue: poverty, immigration, drug addiction, AIDS. Although scenes were sometimes cut by the censors, the series was widely watched.
In many ways, Farhadi’s first two feature films picked up where “A Tale of a City” left off. Diffuse and episodic, “Dancing in the Dust” (2003) and “The Beautiful City” (2004) are somewhat sentimental portraits of marginalized young people trying to escape their circumstances. His third feature, “Fireworks Wednesday” (2006), is a different matter altogether. Tightly constructed, it observes the classical unities of time, place and action. The movie gives us a day in the life of a troubled middle-class couple as seen through the eyes of a young working-class woman, herself soon to be wed, who is sent by a temp agency to clean their home. It was Farhadi’s first feature film about his own social milieu and the first to draw on his deep theatrical background — qualities that would underwrite the sequence of masterpieces that followed.
Before Farhadi begins shooting, he leads his cast through an intensive rehearsal process, which can last for three or four months. His approach is modeled strongly on that of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian director and theorist, about whom Farhadi wrote his master’s thesis. Instead of practicing the script, the actors improvise moments from earlier in their characters’ lives, producing a back story that will often inform their roles, even if none of it features in the movie itself. The goal is to get the actors to feel as if they had constructed the characters themselves. In “About Elly,” Farhadi’s subsequent film, the title character (Taraneh Alidoosti) is secretly engaged to a man (Saber Abar) who appears only in the final act, after Elly has gone missing. Although they never appear on screen together, Farhadi insisted that Alidoosti and Abar spend a lot of time with each other in rehearsals. It was important, he felt, that each have a strong image of the other in their minds throughout the shoot.
Such a meticulous and — for film, at least — unconventional process has led to performances of astonishing sensitivity. There can be few scenes in 21st-century cinema as moving as the one from “A Separation” in which Nader (Peyman Moaadi), the man speaking to the camera in the opening shot, breaks down in tears while bathing his wheelchair-bound father — tears to which the old man remains oblivious. A moment earlier, we saw Nader, a secular-minded, relatively prosperous individual, behave poorly toward Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the religiously conservative woman he has hired to take care of his father, first accusing her of stealing (wrongly, it turns out) and then roughly pushing her out the door of his apartment. No one deserves to be treated like this, but Razieh has provoked Nader’s anger by tying his father to his bed and locking him in while she runs an errand. This, in turn, may sound almost unforgivable, except that Razieh is pregnant and desperately poor and has been having fainting spells that may be related to her work for Nader — work she has had to keep secret from her equally religious husband, who would be scandalized to know she was taking care of an old man. And Nader himself, we realize as the slightly shaky camera lingers over his heaving body in the bathroom, already seems to feel remorse for his actions. Almost every moment in the film invites, and rewards, this kind of in-the-round moral scrutiny. The power of the bathing scene arises not simply from the poignancy of the action it depicts (the son now caring for the father who once cared for him) but also from the way in which, after a relentless sequence of increasingly hostile exchanges, it provides a kind of release valve for an accumulation of complicated, contradictory emotions — Nader’s and our own.
When “A Separation” opened in Iran in the spring of 2011, it electrified the public. People lined up overnight to see the premiere at the Fajr Film Festival, which takes place every year on the anniversary of the revolution. Theaters sold out, and it ended up grossing $24.4 million worldwide, making it the most profitable Iranian movie in history. “From Iran, a Separation,” a documentary about the film’s reception, captures some of the heated debates it provoked across the country. Many people, feeling that the film implicitly sides with Simin (the mother who doesn’t want her child growing up under “these circumstances”), were exhilarated by Farhadi’s frank portrayal of middle-class ambivalence toward the values on which the Islamic republic was founded. Others saw the movie as a vindication of Razieh, whose struggles laid bare the difficulty of leading a devout life in a modernizing nation. Still others viewed it simply as an anti-Iranian slur and asked why they should pay money to be insulted in theaters.
The intensity of this response is largely a testament to the film’s aesthetic force, but it also underscores the way it captured the polarized mood of the times. Less than two years earlier, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a reactionary who favored a confrontational approach to the West over the country’s nuclear program, was returned to office in rigged elections. The fraud was so blatant that it provoked an immediate backlash. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, calling for the result to be annulled, filled the streets of Tehran. Farhadi, whose second daughter was born the morning the protests broke out, joined the marchers that very afternoon. Thirty years after Khomeini’s revolution, the Islamic republic seemed on the brink of collapse. Then the regime unleashed its paramilitary brigades, and the so-called Green Movement was mercilessly suppressed.
How people responded to Farhadi’s film seemed to correlate with their feelings about the Green Movement, which had broad support among the metropolitan middle class but was opposed by religious conservatives. Farhadi was not unsurprised by the uproar and said that all his films are an attempt to start a conversation, though he gently rejected the idea that their moral pluralism was in any way an attempt to inoculate himself against accusations of pushing a particular agenda. “I believe that every character in my films has reasons for their wrongdoings, and that if we gave them time they’d be able to explain those reasons to the rest of us,” he said.
Farhadi did, however, acknowledge that his refusal to judge his characters or to explicitly criticize the political system under which they live may have helped him to evade censorship or worse. “Being an Iranian filmmaker is a tightrope existence,” Hamid Naficy, a leading scholar of Iranian and diasporic cinema, told me, “but he has somehow mastered the art.” That his friend Panahi, whose movies are less ambiguous, more forthright in their condemnation of Iranian society, should have ended up with the filmmaking ban is understandable. The final straw for the government may have been not the work itself but Panahi’s outspoken support for the Green Movement during an appearance at the Montreal World Film Festival.
Iranian censorship, like Iran itself, is far from monolithic. Scripts must be submitted for approval to the formidably named Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance before film shoots can begin; anything that strikes its functionaries as immoral or politically subversive is liable to be cut. Once a movie wraps, the end product must also be reviewed by the ministry before it is publicly released. This may sound like ideological regimentation at its finest, but in reality, like any mechanism of coercion, it has a serious design flaw: the human beings who run it. The committees in charge of reading screenplays are composed of individuals who don’t always agree with one another — or with themselves — as to what constitutes immorality. These committees are always changing, and those that read a script before it’s turned into a film are rarely the same ones that watch the finished movie. “It’s like the weather,” Farhadi said of censorship. “In the morning, it’s sunny; in the afternoon, it’s cloudy. There isn’t a universal pattern or law.”
Naficy believes that Farhadi’s position is secure for the time being. “He seems to have learned how to behave himself,” he said sardonically. What’s more, the director’s international success has enhanced Iran’s cultural prestige, putting him in good standing with the government, or at least those members of it who care about such things. But as Hamid Dabashi, another leading Iranian film scholar, told me: “There is no guarantee. If there is, God forbid, a war, or an uprising, or anything that makes the ruling elite feel vulnerable, then of course they will shut everyone up, including filmmakers.”
“People in this village are extremely kind,” Farhadi said when we finally pulled up in the center of Torrelaguna, a large cobbled square dominated by a fortlike Gothic church, where the wedding in “Everybody Knows” takes place. Almost immediately he was hailed by a local, with whom he stopped to chat. The same thing happened every few minutes as we walked the town’s quiet streets. Far from finding the production a nuisance, it seemed as though Torrelaguna had been sad to see it go.
Farhadi is eager to dispel the notion that because his Iranian films are subject to censorship they are somehow compromised or incomplete — that had he been able to make them in another country he’d have done certain things differently. Yes, the female actors wouldn’t have had to wear head scarves in their homes, and perhaps the dialogue would contain more explicit language, but his larger artistic choices were never a result of pragmatic considerations.
Working in Europe, he said, comes with both perks (the budget for his latest film was $11.8 million; for “A Separation,” it was $800,000) and challenges. Despite his belief in the essential sameness of people, he made sure to immerse himself in Spanish culture before he began shooting “Everybody Knows,” moving to the country for two years and taking daily language lessons. Many aspects of the story changed as a result. In the original draft, Laura (Cruz’s character), who has returned to Spain for her younger sister’s wedding, withholds from her Argentine husband (Ricardo Darín) an important detail of her youthful relationship with Paco (Bardem), who still lives in the same village and remains a close friend of the family’s. While such discretion seemed plausible in an Iranian marriage, Farhadi came to realize that the Spanish were far more open and changed his script accordingly. The revision process could best be summed up, he said, by the change in the film’s title: Originally it was to be called “Nobody Knows.”
Communicating with his largely Spanish cast via a team of interpreters was another obstacle, but Farhadi seems to have a gift for connecting with actors on a level deeper than language. Cruz told me that she and Farhadi occasionally shared their dreams with each other and sometimes discovered mysterious parallels. During the shoot, the same Rumi poem about how suffering spreads throughout a family came to both of them in their sleep. “With Asghar, it was like that all the time,” she told me. “We both love the magical part of life.”
“Everybody Knows” is an impressive piece of cultural ventriloquism, a dynamic narrative engine, 132 minutes absorbingly spent; but it lacks the essential magic of Farhadi’s Iranian productions. He seems aware of this, at least on one level. “Some people find this movie strange because they are used to the idea that I always keep something back, that I don’t explain everything,” he said at a bar off the main square, a somewhat run-down establishment that Farhadi’s set designers had made over to look more rustic. The movie was strange for him as well, he continued: “It was a new experience, and it’s the result of Spanish culture. In Catholic cultures, you have this concept of confession. People talk and confess the things they’ve done.” Whereas in Islamic tradition, sinners confess directly to God, without the need of an intermediary.
One unquestionable virtue of “Everybody Knows” is how vividly it underscores what Iran does for the director’s imagination. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” Auden says in his eulogy for Yeats. The same seems true of Iran and Farhadi. Spain, it is worth remembering, was a military dictatorship until 1975; and yet the collective trauma of the Franco era doesn’t really bear on the characters in “Everybody Knows.” Perhaps there’s no reason it would, and yet the absence of historical freightage stands in contrast to Farhadi’s Iranian films, in which the characters are manic with the tensions of an unfinished past. “I swear on Imam Hussein,” Razieh says when she denies Nader’s accusation of theft in “A Separation.” She is invoking Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and the second Shiite imam, who was beheaded in the seventh century. For most Iranians, and Shiite Muslims everywhere — a minority for whom, according to Ryszard Kapuscinski, “nothing has gone right for centuries” — Hussein’s death was a tragedy whose bitterness remains undiminished to this day.
Farhadi was due to fly back to Tehran the following evening, where he had a class of film students to teach and a new screenplay to work on. Outside his hotel, I finally got to ask him about the rumor that circulated in Iran after his first triumph at the Oscars in 2012: that he wouldn’t be returning to the country of his birth. He smiled skeptically. “There is a lot of fake news about me,” he said in English (Ruzbehan was trailing behind), with the weary tolerance of a man accustomed to seeing his life and work distorted on a grand scale. Had he ever considered leaving, though? Farhadi spread his hands in a gesture of transparency. “My home is there,” he said. “My kids — they go to school. Maybe sometimes I go outside for making film, for promotion, but always I am there.”
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