Golshifteh Farahani at home in Paris. She stars as a mother of two who is turned into a caregiver for her husband after he is shot and falls into a coma, in “The Patience Stone.” The film opens in New York on Wednesday (photo by Elaine Sciolino)
Growing up in Iran, Golshifteh Farahani was a rebel. She persuaded her classmates to go on strike because their school had no heat, and she lied to her parents so that her sister could spend time with her boyfriend.
Enlarge This Image Benoît Peverelli/Sony Pictures Classics Golshifteh Farahani, left, in “The Patience Stone.”
In a protest against the head scarf at 16, she shaved her head, taped down her breasts, dressed like a boy and rode a bicycle around Tehran. At 17, she rejected her parents’ wish that she study piano in Vienna and pursued acting instead.
“There’s an expression in Persian, ‘to play with the lion’s tail,’ ” she said here in a recent interview in English. “I wasn’t what Iranian society wanted me to be — a good girl. I played with the lion’s tail.”
Her latest film, “The Patience Stone,” which opens in New York on Wednesday, is also a statement of rebellion, though a somewhat tame one compared with the controversy that led to her condemnation in Iran this year.
The film was directed by the Afghan-born Atiq Rahimi, based on his novel of the same title that won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. It tells of a young Afghan mother of two who is turned into a caregiver for her husband after he is shot and falls into a coma.
As war rages outside, she sits by his side, feeding him sugar water through a tube in his mouth and telling him stories — of the suffering he caused her, of her lack of love for him. She confesses her deepest secrets, about her sexual desires, her longing for romantic love, her deceit, her lies. On the festival circuit, Ms. Farahani has been winning raves, with a critic for The Hollywood Reporter writing that she gives a “spellbinding performance in a highly demanding central role,” and Variety’s reviewer calling it a tour de force.
“We see a weak, Afghan woman in the beginning who struggles to break free, from tradition, from religion, from her husband,” Ms. Farahani said. The film ends with an act of liberation for the woman as “she went from victim to warrior.”
So did Ms. Farahani.
The daughter of a theater director and an actress-painter, she studied piano from the age of 5, starred in her first film in Iran at 14 and married at 20. She first ran afoul of the Islamic Republic when it said she collaborated with Westerners by playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s C.I.A. thriller “Body of Lies.” She fled the country in 2008, settled in Paris and separated from her husband.
Having acted in more than 25 films, including “Chicken With Plums,” Ms. Farahani, 30, has become one of the best-known actresses Iran has produced.
For the past year, she has lived in a small studio on the lower level of a house here owned by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (a writer of the adaptations of “Belle de Jour” and “The Patience Stone”), and his Iranian-born wife, the novelist Nahal Tajadod.
Dressed in an oversize white crepe de Chine shirt and slim black pants, Ms. Farahani wore no shoes, makeup, jewelry or even earrings. She has pale freckles on her cheeks and a shallow chickenpox scar above her nose. She whistled as she prepared green tea and laid out a platter of French pastries in the garden.
At first, Mr. Rahimi rejected her for his film. “He thought I was too young, too beautiful, too joyful,” she said. But she persisted, “I told him that if he didn’t give me the part, I’d learn it by heart and perform it in every street in Paris.” He relented. But it took two and a half years to raise the money and to turn the book, written in French, into a script in Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan.
Ms. Farahani had to learn to speak in Dari. She needed to memorize more than a dozen pages of dialogue at a time, because Mr. Rahimi, who directed the film, insisted she deliver each long soliloquy in its entirety, without a break.
“This was probably the hardest film I’ve ever done,” she said. “Every day while we were shooting, I was thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to do it.’ ”
The emotional investment was the most difficult part. “The pain of this woman got deep inside me,” she said.
Mr. Rahimi admitted that he provoked her. “I pushed her into a sort of rage,” he said in an interview. “I made her cry. She told me I was forcing her to do the impossible.” He even reminded her of a difficult love affair in order to evoke more suffering. “Every night I cried for two or three hours for no reason, for no reason,” she said. “I thought I was going crazy. When the film was finished, I broke into pieces. I was dead — emotionally, mentally, physically.”
After a four-month break, she emerged more independent — and more rebellious.
She shattered a taboo in Iran in 2012 by posing for a French magazine with her breasts covered only with her hands.
Then she dared to go further. She appeared in a short video promoting the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, in which more than two dozen young performers took off an item of clothing as they committed “body and soul” to their art. She bared her right breast, and said, “I will put flesh to your dreams.”
The Fars news agency in Iran condemned the video, saying it showed “the hidden, disgusting face of cinema.” A man claiming to represent the Islamic Republic’s judiciary called her parents in Iran to tell them she would be punished by having her breasts cut off.
Most recently, she posed nude for the fashion photographer Paolo Roversi. (The photos have yet to appear). When he raised the idea, “I said, ‘Listen, Paolo, I’ve had so many problems, let’s not do it,’ ” she said. “But then I said, if he, Paolo Roversi, doesn’t take these photos, who will? It was like he was passing through me, it was like he was photographing my soul.”
Her exile from Iran complete, she is making peace with her new life, saying, “The Iran I’m dreaming of maybe doesn’t exist anymore.”
And that thought gives her strength. “There are two types of people in exile — those who are victims and end up committing suicide in the Seine and those who become warriors, who use all their sadness to build an engine with big wings to fly,” she said. “Exile is my power.”
Agnes Dherbeys for The New York Times | August 9, 2013