Amazingly beautiful, super smart and driven to movies that deal with controversial subjects, it’s not hard to imagine Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani giving Angelina Jolie a run for her money. In her 30 years, and largely without even trying, Farahani has caused quite a stir. In 2006, the actress, who has been famous in her country since the age of 14, attended the premiere of Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, without wearing her country’s traditional veil, which raised the ire of officials back in Iran. And the pressure on her at home only intensified when, last year, she chose to bare a breast in a short internet video done by the academy that gives out the César—the French version of the Oscar. At that point, Farahani was asked not to return to live in Iran, and set up base in Paris. Since then her international profile has only gotten risen: she’s appeared in the insider fashion glossy, W Magazine, and has won rave reviews for her latest film, The Patience Stone, a war drama, which was selected as the Afghan Entry for Best Foreigh Language Oscar, and has just opened in the U.S.
Though a few other subjects pop in and out of the action, the subtitled film is basically a one-woman tour de force for Farahani. She is on screen for virtually every second of the film, in which she is cast as an Afghan wife and mother tending to her wounded, and now comatose, soilder husband in the midst of the Afghan War as bombs regularly explode outside their home. (Yes, an Adam Sandler movie it is not.) As she speaks to him—he cannot respond, nor it it clear if he can even hear her—she slowly reveals all her secrets, some small, some mighty, and in doing so makes a moving statment about the plight of women in Afghan society. "The director absolutely didn’t want me to play this role at first. He thought I was too young, too joyful," Farahani says. "But when I read the book [of the same name], I knew I had to play that part. I did everything to get it. On the surface, I may not have many things in common with the character, but deep inside, as a woman, I do. I am an invdividual and she is an individual in a country that doesn’t want any individuals. They don’t have any space in society. They are told to be like the others. Life is about your family, your tribe, your society. If you fail them, you fail society. And I’ve had, more or less, the same experience, passing my life in exile."
As dreary as the subject matter may sound, there are bits of joy and humor to be found, especially in the scenes she shares with her more wordly aunt, who dispenses life lessons while applying lipstick, an act that seems an almost decadent given the dire circumstances in the rest of the film. "When you wear makeup, you want to make yourself beautiful," says Farahani. "It’s like a flower making itself more beautiful for the bees. She’s happy that she’s beautiful; she’s accepted that she’s beautiful. The aunt teaches her that a body can be used for sexual pleasure—that it’s not just a surface for suffering—and she starts to know her soul and mind in another way. But when you are suffering and carrying tons of guilt on your shoulders, you never have the time, you can never even imagine putting on makeup."
Farahani herself wore a headscarf growing up in Iran, but for her, it wasn’t oppressive. "The headscarf is the last thing you would ever think about. It becomes like a dress, or a shirt, like a dress code," she explains. "I had so much pleasure growing up in Iran. We had a normal life. I went to music school; it’s not at all what people think or what the media makes it out to be. Outside you wear a headscarf, but you have a crazy wide life—you have theater, you have art—there’s this enormous vibrant energy. You learn that life is now and tomorrow might not exist, so you have to live in the moment. You’re always fighting as a woman, as a artist, as a young person. It is not a dead-end. We are survivors. You find a way to express yourself."