It's hard enough to write well in your native language ("All you do," wrote Red Smith, "is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein"), but one of the wonders of modern literature is how Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, fluent in his native Polish as well as French, became Joseph Conrad, a virtuoso of fiction in English, his third language.
Since cinema is a collaborative art, directors can rely on actors, screenwriters and hairdressers to help them switch languages. It is true that Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni stumbled by filming Zabriskie Point in English, but many directors, including Luis Buñuel, Alfonso Cuarón, Milos Forman, Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang, Ang Lee, Ernst Lubitsch, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski, Joseph von Sternberg, and Billy Wilder have produced major works in an adopted tongue.
Aside from Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's animated memoir of growing up in Tehran during the overthrow of the Shah, The Past (Le Passé) might be the greatest Iranian film ever made in French. Set and shot entirely in the environs of Paris, it employs the local language for every conversation, except for a few brief lines that immigrants utter in either Farsi or Arabic. It is all the more remarkable that director Asghar Farhadi does not know French and had to rely on an interpreter on his set to communicate with cast and crew.
The opening image of The Past, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is a perfect metaphor for obstructed communication. At a Paris airport, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, best known as the perky ingénue Peppy in The Artist), stands behind a glass partition gesturing to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has just arrived from Tehran. The glass muffles what they attempt to say to each other. At Marie's request, Ahmad, her husband, is returning after four years in Tehran in order to grant her a divorce. Though more than 3,000 miles separate Tehran and Paris, we soon realize that we are back in the emotional territory of Farhadi's last film, A Separation, the Oscar-winning exploration of a couple's divergence when the wife wants to emigrate and the husband does not.
Ahmad is in fact Marie's second husband. Her first, now remarried and living in Brussels, left her with two daughters whom Ahmad, with no children of his own, is eager to see again. The elder, 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet), has become a behavioral problem on account of her antipathy toward Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved in with Marie and her two daughters. Samir runs a dry cleaning shop. (Between this film and American Hustle, in which Christian Bale wins Amy Adams' heart by clothing her in expensive garments left behind by his dry cleaning customers, this seems the season for screening tetrachloroethylene). And he met Marie while filling a prescription for his wife at the pharmacy where Marie works. Samir's wife lies in a coma, and despite Lucie's fierce opposition, he and Marie plan to wed.
Hints are dropped that Ahmad was mopey while married to Marie. But at present he seems the only grownup around — calm, reasonable and congenial amid the increasing hysteria of the other characters. He sets about trying to fix things — not only the leaky plumbing in Marie's kitchen but, beginning with Samir's pouty, petulant young son who resents being moved like an armchair from one household to another, the fraught and frayed relationships he encounters.
Ahmad seems the ideal mediator, except that his mediation only serves to make things worse. Even his gesture of buying gifts for the children serves to exacerbate rivalries and rancor. An attractive outsider, Ahmad is a surrogate for the viewer.
Confronted with a hive of acrimony, we, too, must try to make sense of it all without being stung. Like Ahmad, we are repeatedly learning new secrets that undermine what we thought we knew before.