Arguably the greatest writer/director working in cinema today, Asghar Farhadi started his career with this little seen gem. My first experience with a Farhadi film was back in 2009 when I saw his exceptional film “About Elly” at MIFF. However I was totally blown away by his following film, “A Separation”, which is a total masterpiece and the last film that I have given a perfect five stars to. Since then I have done everything I can to track down and see all of Farhadi's previous films and those he made after “A Separation”; all of them impressed. However his debut film had always alluded me, until just recently. Often considered Farhadi's “worst” film, I was determined to find out whether that meant that “Dancing in the Dust” was still a brilliant film but less polished than his later films, or if it was just an out and out disaster. Below are my thoughts on the film.
After finding out that his wife's mother may be a prostitute, Nazar is forced to divorce the woman he loves because his family fears the shame it will bring on them to be associated with such a woman. Although Nazar is reluctant at the beginning, because he believes just because his mother in law may be bad, it doesn't mean that Rayhaneh (his wife) should be painted with that same brush, he eventually relents due to the never ending pressure put on him to do so. Devastated and still in love with his wife, he is determined to do everything in his power to return his wife's dowry to her, which leads him on a journey that takes him out to the desert where he meets a grumpy snake catcher, who wants nothing to do with the young man. Nazar tries to convince the man to teach him how to catch snakes, in an attempt to make the money he needs, however the man is uninterested in both Nazar nor his company. Though after giving up on Rayhaneh once, he refuses to do so again and is determined to make this opportunity work.
There is going to be no mystery with this review because I am happy to report that this is yet another great film from Asghar Farhadi, proving that as of this writing, he has yet to make a bad film. However, it is true that “Dancing in the Dust” is unlike any of the films he would make after it, but the film-making on display is still of a high quality. The films that Farhadi is famous for play out almost like domestic thrillers while often classified as “just” dramas. Usually there is an element to his dramas that is able to cause suspense within the picture, and little details or spoken words which are deemed unimportant in the moment, later have massive ramifications in the greater whole. What is amazing though is the way Farhadi creates and weaves these elements in such a realistic and natural way, that they always feel organic within the story and never like you are being manipulated, to the point that it sometimes feels like you are witness to events unfolding before your very eyes, like in a documentary. This is how “Dancing in the Dust” is different because this is very obviously a movie you are watching. The artifice of the storytelling and filmmaking in general is not hidden here, in fact it is celebrated, particularly in the film's visual style.
In regards to the visual style, I must admit that I was wrong in my assertion that Farhadi has improved on this as he has become more experienced, because it is very clear with this film that he always has had a keen visual eye, particularly in terms of storytelling, right from his debut its just that his later films, he must have believed they worked better with this style pared back. For mine though, “Dancing in the Dark” is a stunningly beautiful film that is filled to the brim with very artistic shots without losing sight of what is important within the narrative. That said, the visuals definitely drive the story here as opposed to the written word.
The other difference to Farhadi's later work, is the lack of complexity to the story being told here. This is in no way a negative; it is just a much simpler tale, as it is essentially a story about love, or perhaps more accurately, it is a story about two men and what they do for the women they love and then living with the consequences of those actions. Both men find themselves where they are due to actions they performed for the women in their lives which at the time they deemed the right thing to do, only to still be paying for those decisions later down the track. The title of the film itself has to do with this very idea, as early in the film Nazar and Rayhaneh are watching a movie on television where a woman is dancing on glass to save the man she loves. Nazar explains to Rayhaneh that this is what love is, and questions her whether she would dance on glass for him (to which she amusingly replies “Sure, if I was wearing shoes”). All the pain and everything that Nazar goes through in the desert is for Rayhaneh; the desert is his broken glass, thus the very beautiful and poetic title “Dancing in the Dust”, which also alludes to the fact that while a story about love, this also deals with the pain that comes with loving someone. While I continually talk about the fact that the film is about love, it is interesting to note just how little of the films running time Nazar and Rayhaneh's love story occupies. It is only through the opening titles that we are witness to their whole love affair, where we see them meet, fall in love and marry in just a number of shots and when the film starts in earnest, it is when the couple are struggling over whether to get divorced or not. So while the film is definitely about love, “pure” traditional love is hardly represented on screen at all.
In regards to the acting on display here, I thought everyone performed well but I was particularly impressed by the performance of Faramarz Gharibian who plays the grumpy snake catcher. For the majority of the film, his character is silent, this is a damaged man who only talks when necessary, so Gharibian's performance has to be of an internal nature and he does a wonderful job of portraying a broken man, who still has a lot of power within. He has a couple of great moments towards the end of the film when his character has a chance at some sort of redemption, and we get to see a softer, more emotional side to this gruff character. Importantly Gharibian also has great chemistry with his acting partner, Yousef Khodaparast, who plays Nazar. The two characters could not be more opposite with Nazar constantly talking and moving about and much more extroverted, but the two of them bounce off each other beautifully, which at times makes the film, surprisingly, really funny. While I don't think Khodaparast's performance is as quite as nuanced as his counterpart, what makes him so effective is the chemistry between himself and Gharibian in their scenes together. When Khodaparast plays in scenes without him, he never seems as strong. Baran Kosari is also adequate in the small role of Rayhaneh, although she is never really given much to do.
Overall, I was very impressed by Asghar Farhadi's debut film, “Dancing in the Dust”. While it is true that this can be considered his “worst” film, this is a man who produces films at the highest quality possible, so that definition is something of a misnomer because if it had been directed by anybody else, I'm sure it would be considered quite an achievement. This is a different kind of film from Farhadi, as he relies on the power of his visuals as opposed to the written word to tell his story and does so via a number of beautiful and poetic images (I loved the idea of the amputated finger and what it represented in the film in that moment). His use of the desert location is breathtaking and I was also very impressed by his use of music throughout the film, while also surprised by the amount of humour within. So what is left to say except this is another Asghar Farhadi film that I wholeheartedly recommend.