Of the myriad things that Cinema is, it is also…what it isn’t. Every second of a film is made of 24 static images. The fine gaps between each frame constitute an empty visual space that is imperceptible, but when “footage” literally constitutes the length of a print, they equate to an expanse of blankness. There is also the fixed distance between the viewer and the grand projected image, the vast empty space of theaters, and of course the frame/screen itself which is an omission of all things besides.
Like Cinema, we exclude whole fields from our attention to hone the essential of our everyday. Our speech, a highly contextual experience, also allows for this reductive latitude. If cinema represents the tension between presentation and omission it is because life also does. We cannot know everything.Even in its most refined execution Cinema is a fragmentary brogue, as evidenced by the primacy of “the cut”, which alternately connotes a period, a comma or an ellipse as perspectives shift from one framing, one location, one time period to the next. These leaps within narrative contexts create necessary absences. If our Persistence of Vision can absorb the interstices of blankness and blend separate images into continuity, our Persistence of Apprehension helps blend the cuts and gaps into a consolidated reality.
By extending the qualities of absence that are elemental to cinema, one finds power in the balance of showing and not showing. More important than raising questions, effective omissions impel the imagination. Any time that the sound has commenced in the opening credits before the first image, you have understood this power in its simplest form. In this, filmmakers like Asgar Farhadi extend an olive branch to the viewer. Especially in these times of effects-driven hyper-presentational cinema that is clawing its way out of the uncanny valley in three dimensions and showing everything it conceivably can along the way, replete with speed ramping, omission can be a stunning experience. Recall a film like Funny Games (2007), where a wealthy family is terrorized in their home by two sociopathic young men. Most of the physical violence takes place off-camera (a form of omission), and yet it resonates as being utterly and memorably grizzly. Think also of the seven and a half minute penultimate shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) that glacially gazes and pans the dusty lot in front of a remote hotel while off camera, David Locke’s (Jack Nicholson) fate is catching up to him with audible commotion and confusion. We eventually see the result, but the event itself needs to be imagined. In not showing, there is more despair more uneasiness and more expansiveness than in showing, especially because of the uncommon length of the shot.
Few things are as compelling as the practiced omissions of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose A Separation (2012) thrust him onto the map of world cinema. The west has been rightly backtracking to make up for the neglect of his earlier works. His 2009 feature About Elly is now streaming on Netflix, and 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday is enjoying a repertory run in limited release through newly minted Grasshopper Films.
Farhadi dwells in middle class semi-secular Iran. He captures an Iran that needs to be seen by the west. An Iran that is modern, un-exotic, interpersonal and so indelibly human that it could help to overtake the simplistic impressions so many have of an unshakable theocracy. That is not to dismiss the elements of religious custom, conservativism and political unrest that continue to shape Iranian society, but rather to present the other part of its broad spectrum, which contains strong and intelligent women, candor, domestic drama and tested love, decentralized (but not removed) from Islam. By virtue of their placement in an Islamic society, Farhadi’s films contain such social material and he uses it to dramatic advantage in subtle ways, with gender relations and marital status in particular.
Farhadi explores the stakes of secrecy in intimate settings. Thus his film’s are spurred on by the omission of a piece of information. Those crevices of the unknown, arrived at through happenstances, then splinter into finer fissures to reveal a depth and complexity of characters foremost. The resultant films, like Elly and Fireworks, are raw and natural. They detect the form of their absent parts through ripples of tension and uproar like an emotional sonar. The truth is then arrived at through erosion. Fireworks Wednesday is just such a film. Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a young woman engaged to a gentle and joyful young man. We see them first, enjoying a motorcycle ride on a mountain pass. Her Hijab gets caught in the chain and they almost crash. His regard for the Hijab is lax and denotes a youthful liberalism. The hazard of concealment is emblematized. They part and she heads to a housecleaning job.
Farhadi prefaces with a telling image. The camera is close on the bus window (from the exterior). Roohi, on her way to Mozhde’s apartment complex, cracks it open and puts her hand into the wind just up to the wrist. Her youth shows as her fingers play with the breeze, but what is most beguiling is her hand at play with its reflection. The city moves past in the window as we gaze at her “hands”. Is the hand more true than its reflection? Does a reflection, in its inherent distortion, still possess truth? The reflection is a fact, but what is “truth” in regards to “fact”? These are the crux of Farhadi’s films.
From the very moment Roohi arrives at the apartment complex, waves of disruption from this household can be felt. The tenants’ buzzer is malfunctioning so Roohi must rely on a relay between neighbors. Thus we immediately understand that information travels in right angles in this environment. Roohi spies a broken window from the gated parking lot as she awaits permission to enter. It is indeed the window to the disheveled apartment she will be cleaning. Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) and Mazdeh Samii (Hediyeh Tehrani) are the quarreling couple that live there with their son Amir Ali. When Roohi finally gets upstairs, the house is in exceptional disarray and reflects the storm between Mozhde and Morteza. Roohi tries to piece together context clues of this “crime scene” and decode the frantic behaviors of the couple. We only know what Roohi knows until about 30 minutes into the film when Farhadi reveals explicitly what has been implied. Mazdeh confesses to her sister that she suspects Morteza is cheating with a neighbor. Her nerves are shredded, and her suffering is palpable. Morteza is also at wit’s end defending himself and balancing the scale of expectations from work, family and marriage. Infidelity is suspected through the senses: the smell of a perfume, a voice heard on an answering machine, strange calls to the apartment). Nothing seen, but sensed like a drop of blood in water.
Farhadi uses broken glass, dirty windows, reflections, plastic tarps, clutter and even the Hijab as syntactical elements. In their haze, superimpositions, refractions and concealments builds a language of obfuscation alongside the constant disruptive punctuations of new years fireworks. Much is made of cleaning and de-cluttering as this family in question prepares for a trip to Bali. The palate is muted grey, beige, black and blue with fine points of red associated with specific characters. Much is made of permission to enter with buzzers, locks and doors. Information is sometimes seen or spied from narrow vantages like cracked doors, voices heard through vents or through walls, heresay, supposition, etc. The confinement of time and the smallness of the apartment makes the clutter and confusion of information, emotion and suspicion into claustrophobic mayhem. Every time Roohi tries to leave, she gets sucked back into the vacuum of this collapsing marriage and the absent truth. She even becomes a pawn in the course of events, knowing more than she ever really wanted to, the result of which is a “coming of age” for Roohi.
Farhadi is surgical in his omissions and distilled in his presentation. He is also masterful in his timing for revelations. They are never the last thing we learn. And by the time we do learn the truth, it is merely one fleeting note in a symphony of emotional complexities. This is how Farhadi rises above mere convention, through a crushing sense of transience.
His next film, About Elly furthers his foray into the art of omission. The resultant deterioration of a family vacation is genuinely upsetting. Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a school teacher invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), her pupils’ mother, to go on a Caspian seaside weekend. She joins this family group with some reluctance. Sepideh has supposedly booked a mansion, but the impending return of the owners throws a wrench into the works, which they find out when they arrive. The only option is a deserted beachfront house in disrepair and without phone reception: a perfect storm awaiting one ingredient. Sepideh lies about Elly and her visiting friend Ahmad, claiming they are on their honeymoon. Coincidentally sh is trying to play matchmaker between them (which for more than one reason is unsavory). Elly is curiously distant from the otherwise elated and candid goings-on, and persists in wanting only to stay one day, however Sepideh schemes to keep her from absconding. Elly goes into town to make seemingly mysterious phone calls, and at sudden unsupervised moment she disappears. Enter: the final ingredient of the perfect storm.
This disappearance and its rippling consequences, radiates discontent throughout the group and recrimination rules the day. This average family, whom we have been intimately invited into by the director, whose relationship’s are so natural, universal and free become so urgent and fearful. One single piece of missing information (what happened to Elly), omitted to the audience and to the characters as if by way of scalpel, becomes an excavation of several characters’ hidden motives, pasts, and social pressures. Sepideh in particular is dissected as the withholder of knowledge and a history of childish imposition. It pits beloved people against their own morality, removed from religiosity. As manners wane, more information comes to the surface.
Farhadi could have shown the moment of Elly’s disappearance and still created an interesting display of recrimination and tested familial bonds. But instead we adopt the perspective of the family to maximize the feeling of betrayal through dishonesty. Leading up to the very moment of her disappearance, the camera pulls close to Elly. She is alone, other than the small children at play on the shore. She is running up and down the beach with a kite, experiencing a pure and beautiful abandon. This scene features fast cutting that differs from the otherwise well behaved camera and longer takes, which proves both discursive and distractive, like the play of a magician’s hand during a trick. The next thing that we see is the very youngest child running frantic to the house to get the attention of their parents.
It would be impertinent to discuss these films in any more detail because omission and secrecy are their lifeblood. Farhadi’s mysteries are much less about specific “truths” though, and more about the extant corrosion that underlies secrecy. And so the clarification to be had involves the content of characters and their intimate contexts, and is less about being proven right or wrong in regards to a missing puzzle piece. Everything is a grey area with Farhadi, and that makes his films so universal.