According to the line-up for the 71st edition of the festival, which was unveiled last week, Three Faces will be among the 18 films that will be competing for the festival’s main prize.
It will be the first time Panahi premieres in Competition at the Cannes, which runs May 8-19 in southern France.
The news stirred controversy in Iranian media as the filmmaker is subject to a 20-year filmmaking ban.
In 2010, Panahi was arrested and convicted of spreading anti-Iran propaganda, due to his involvement in street protests ensuing the 2009 presidential elections in Iran.
The poll saw the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by an 11-million lead over his nearest rivals. The vote was followed by sporadic street protests in Tehran after those defeated in the poll made allegations of widespread fraud in the election.
Panahi, who was working to produce a movie about the protests before he was arrested, was banned for 20 years from making films, interviewing media outlets and leaving the country.
He was also sentenced to serve a six-year prison term, but it has not been enforced as Panahi was released on bail shortly afterwards.
However, he has continued to work and Three Faces is his fourth movie in five years.
In 2015, he won Berlin’s Golden Bear for Taxi, having previously taken the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay with 2013’s Closed Curtain, all of which were produced during the ban.
Earlier in 2000, he won Venice’s Golden Lion for The Circle; the Un Certain Regard Jury prize in Cannes for Crimson Gold in 2003 and the Jury Grand Prix in Berlin in 2006 for Offside.
Panahi’s debut film, The White Balloon, won him the Camera d’Or in Cannes in 1995.
His latest film Three Faces tells the story of a trio of Iranian actresses in various life situations: one from days before the 1979 revolution who had to stop acting, one popular star of today known throughout the country and one young girl longing to attend a drama conservatory.
The Paris-based Celluloid Dreams has acquired world sales rights of Panahi’s new film.
In a first sale for the film, French distributor Memento Films has taken rights for France.
The controversy surrounding Panahi was further fuelled after the festival’s director Thierry Frémaux said the Cannes will appeal to Iran to let Panahi attend the festival in person.
On April 12, Frémaux said, “The Iranian authorities will receive a letter from us and from the French authorities to see if they can authorise him to come. We would really love to welcome him.”
Cannes President Pierre Lescure was careful to add that “it’s not a question of pressure. We are not diplomats. The French authorities will accompany us in the procedure which is great. We have to be formal, but not provoking.”
Several right-wing media outlets in Iran, including the Tabnak news website and Kayhan newspaper, described Panahi’s invitation to the world’s top film gathering as an attempt to vilify the Iranian government.
They said the inclusion of Three Faces in the festival has political motivations and is yet another proof that many western film festivals could be used as a tool by western governments to target other countries.
Panahi, who has been at odds with the Iranian government throughout his career, is barely known inside Iran.
In an article published last Sunday, Tabnak said Panahi’s cinematic achievements were not possible without the restrictions imposed on him by Iranian authorities.
The article said the sentence was an “historic favour” to Panahi, allowing him to go on to international acclaim as a freedom-seeking artist who faces oppression at home.
Tabnak said the restrictions have not only prevented Panahi from spreading anti-Establishment propaganda, but they have helped him win awards that he did not deserve.
“The only part of the sentence that went into effect was the travel ban,” the article said.
“Throughout these years, Panahi has continued making movies without getting mandatory licences, has sent his movies to international festivals, has sold their copyright to international distributers and has earned substantial revenue that he could not get in Iran,” Tabnak wrote.
The article said one would only need to compare Panahi’s movies with other films competing in the Cannes and Berlin festivals to come to the conclusion that the awards were not given to the movies, but to the director.
“These movies by no standard are special and could not even enter the Cannes and Berlin festivals if they were made by an unknown director,” Tabnak wrote.
“It seems this success is an achievement for officials who imposed lenient restrictions on his activities. The bans enabled the director to win many awards in foreign film festivals, which should have not been given for such movies,” the article concluded.