Telluride: Three Iranian Directors Take Center Stage

'The Past'

Berenice Bejo stars as a French wife who finds new love after her Iranian husband abandons his family to return to his homeland. 

Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi, the formerly-imprisoned Mohammad Rasoulof and newcomer Mitra Farahani show off their latest work.

Telluride, Colo. -- As far as awards potential goes, Telluride's top Iranian contender was obviously The Past, Asghar Farhadi's followup to his foreign-language Oscar winner A Separation. Like its predecessor, his new film is a tense domestic drama about a fissioning family, a Parisian wife (The Artist's Berenice Bejo), her Iranian soon-to-be ex (Ali Mousafa) and her new beau (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim). Like A Separation, its performances were honed by an unheard-of eight-week rehearsal period.

And like A Separation, The Past was greeted with solid applause at Telluride. A double Cannes winner (the Ecumenical Jury Prize and Bejo for best actress), Farhadi's latest is sure to accumulate more kudos this season. It has two advantages over A Separation. It's a mystery -- a hunt for the true cause of a searing, character-revealing, tragic secret involving multiple family members -- and mysteries tend to be more popular than the courtroom drama setting of A Separation. Plus, The Past's Paris setting and social mores are less alien to Western audiences than A Separation's Tehran.

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Of course, part of the secret of Farhadi's globe-gobbling success has been his exotic mixture of Iranian cinema and Western storytelling. With The Past, he has created his most Western feature to date. But when it comes to Iranian exoticism, director Mohammad Rasoulof, who got a Telluride tribute, beats Farhadi. Farhadi courageously challenged Iran's terrifying theocratic tyrants, but Rasoulof was imprisoned by the mullahs in 2010 along with the most revered Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, and was forbidden to make films for 20 years.

Incredibly, Rasoulof clandestinely made 2013's Manuscripts Don't Burn, a dramatization of the 1988-98 "chain murders" of artists in Iran. He depicts a nightmare world of roaming totalitarian kidnappers who kill by frighteningly imaginative methods: poison suppositories, bus drivers who plunge busfuls of intellectuals over cliffs. There is no cast list, and at the Aug 31 tribute, Rasoulof, a man with sad, kind eyes, apologetically said, "I can't be too specific [about how the film was made], because I might have to do it again." The standing ovation he earned was equally for his ingenious courage and his artistic achievement in a highly Iranian vein, the fictionalization of a reality stranger than any fiction.

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But the most startlingly unexpected Iranian triumph at Telluride was Mitra Farahani's Fifi Howls from Happiness, an unconventional documentary about forgotten Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess, who turns out to be pretty damn great, brilliantly influenced by Picasso and Surrealism, and still selling six-figure paintings at Sothebys. The title comes from his bizarre self-portrait, which reminded me of Francis Bacon's "Screaming Pope" paintings. His sculpture of the Shah's family is both superb and subtly, daringly subversive (which is why, like much of his work, the government destroyed it).

Mohassess, who died in 2010, was a fantastic character, a viciously witty gay guy who cut a stylish swath through Europe and makes wicked fun of his dim-bulb oppressors. In the film, Farahani, gorgeous and stylishly feminine, spars sillfully with the artist, deftly penetrating his defenses through sheer intelligence and knowledge of his work, like Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock.

Unlike when Farhadi's and Rasoulof's names appeared onscreen in their films, nobody applauded when Mitra Farahani's name appeared at her film's beginning. When her name appeared at the end, everybody applauded.