One of the best French action films of the past five years is A Prophet, which tells the story of a young Arab sent to a French prison who later ends up as a mafia kingpin.
The star of this film was Tahar Rahim and his performance catapulted him into other films, including The Eagle, with Channing Tatum, set during the Roman Empire. Later this year he stars in The Cut, by German- Turkish film-maker Fatih Akin, best known for the gutsy Head-on.
It's a real mix, but nothing has proved more that Rahim can tackle any film role than his performance in The Past, by acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
Farhadi is best known for the Oscar-winning drama A Separation set in Iran. He's regarded by many film-makers, including Martin Scorsese, as one of the best directors in the world today.
Unlike A Prophet or The Eagle, there are no guns, swords, blood or violence. But like A Separation, Farhadi's domestic dramas can be just as nail-biting and emotionally potent.
But Rahim says he never expected to be in The Past, set in Paris, or star alongside Berenice Bejo (best known for The Artist) and Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa.
Farhadi - who sought out Rahim after seeing A Prophet in Iran - originally had him cast for another film. "I was really honoured by that. He came to me with the first movie after his big success at the Berlin Film Festival, where he came back with all the prizes for A Separation. But it was not out yet and we talked together and I was interested in this man. I knew who he was, but I had never seen his work before.
"But when he was talking - his behaviour and his position - there was something. I loved it. I really [liked] this guy."
Rahim soon saw Farhadi's earlier feature About Elly, made before A Separation, to get a better understanding of the director. "I was crazy about that movie and then the day after, I went to the cinema for a press screening for A Separation. When I came out I said 'Listen: I'll run with you.' "
In other words, says Rahim, he would do anything with Farhadi. At first they worked on the other project and Rahim would meet up with Farhadi about once a week in Paris. "One day he came up and he's telling me [another] story and I'm thinking 'what is he talking about here?"'
What Farhadi was doing was explaining an idea that had struck him for another film, set in Paris. "I understood. 'So it's another movie?'. He said yes and then he told me [about] The Past."
In the film Rahim plays Samir. His wife has been in a coma for months in hospital and in the meantime he's formed a relationship with French woman Maria (Bejo). After a four-year separation, Maria's husband Ahmad (Mosaffa) returns from Iran to finalise their divorce. Rather than clash with Samir, Ahmad is more concerned about Maria's relationship with their daughter, and in the process this reveals secrets from his past.
Rahim says by working so early on the film with Farhadi, he had some idea of his character even before the script was finished. "It was like a puzzle, things come very slowly inside you. Then you arrive at a point and the point is the script. You already have something in you [of the character]. You cannot tell, but you have something. And then he [Farhadi] gives you things to say in a way; and then we go to rehearsal."
Rahim says he struggled to simply describe Samir in a few words. "I understood because, when you see the movie, this guy is still trying to build himself. He is stuck in the middle between two wives and two choices. He doesn't know what to do."
Farhadi also made it clear to Rahim, 32, that he'd be playing Samir as if he was about a decade older. It was to give the impression of a man who was more worn down and tired of life. "That's why I'm really thankful. He gave me the most mature character I've ever had. I'm happy for that because I knew I had something inside me to explain him that way. But you need a director for that.
"He told me: 'you are the youngest in that movie. But you have to seem to be the oldest all the time."'
To be convincingly older meant more than makeup. Farhadi and Rahim talked about Samir's body language, gait and his way of talking. "We just moved little things on my face. We put too little cotton balls inside here," he says, pointing at his cheeks. "There was a grey hair here and there and some wrinkles, just slightly. It's not time on his face, but the weight of life."
Farhadi has a reputation for being meticulous and for preferring a long rehearsal process. Rahim, who was juggling other film commitments while preparing for The Past, says having long rehearsals was a luxury. "Every word, every position is in his head, every time he tells you what to do. But you feel free. It's strange to say, it sounds like a paradox. But I felt free."
Not surprisingly Rahim would happily work with Farhadi again. He also understands why the Iranian's films have been embraced around the world and why he's the toast of his peers.
"The Past is not a French movie or an Iranian movie. It's a Farhadian movie. The themes this guy wants to explain are universal and speak to every kind of people in every kind of society. It's love, death, family, friends. This can be transportable. But you have to be Farhadi to know how to do it."
Tense The Past is screening now.
- The Dominion Post
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