“I proudly offer this award to the people of my country,” said Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi five years ago, accepting the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film for A Separation, “a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Arriving in 2011, at the beginning of an American election year that many predicted at the time would pivot on the issue of U.S.–Iran relations, Farhadi’s statement was bold on multiple levels. Even while refuting post-Dubya perceptions of Iran as the fulcrum in a global “axis of evil,” the director also shaded then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by speaking of a “rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” The implication was clear: Iranian artists vying for free expression had a lot to shake off in the process.
There’s a decent chance that Farhadi is going to get to make another speech in front of a massive global television audience next month. His new drama The Salesman, which opens in theaters on January 27 after debuting last year at the Cannes Film Festival, is considered by many to be the front-runner in this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film category (or at least neck-and-neck with the epic German comedy Toni Erdmann).
Whether or not he wins his second Oscar (and in doing so joins heavy hitters like Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman on the list of directors with multiple Academy Awards for Best Foreign-Language Film), Farhadi has a lot of eyes on him: following the death last year of Abbas Kiarostami and the ongoing, government-imposed ban on directing facing Jafar Panahi on charges of “propaganda against the system,” Farhadi stands alone as Iran’s most internationally visible filmmaker. It’s a role that requires a certain gravitas, and his movies have it in spades. At the outset of her 2014 book Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema, critic Tina Hassannia dubs her subject “the new Iranian auteur,” suggesting that Farhadi’s importance lies in the way he’s been able to secure mainstream approval in his country without compromising his commitment to social realism and cultural critique.
This balancing act is best exemplified by A Separation, which was made without government financial support and almost thwarted altogether after Farhadi made remarks in support of Panahi and the Iranian “green movement” at an awards ceremony, after which officials closed down his set for a week. In outline, A Separation is not overtly political — it’s about the dissolution of a marriage and the emotional consequences for the couple’s daughter. At the same time, its complex plot and documentary-like attention to detail creates a wide-angle portrait of a country caught between tradition and modernity. The style is focused and clinical: The filmmaker’s unerringly neutral gaze takes everything in while sparing nobody.
Like A Separation, The Salesman is a drama that’s been pressurized to the point of feeling like a thriller. Farhadi’s greatest gift as a director is the ability to imbue everyday situations and exchanges with a sense of menace without treading fully into generic territory. The film’s opening scene feels like it could be the middle of a disaster movie, as a dilapidated Tehran apartment complex starts crumbling around its inhabitants, who are forced to improvise escape routes through crowded hallways and precarious stairwells. The precision of Farhadi’s staging is such that even in the midst of large-scale collapse, the camera is in just the right place to catch a pane of window glass as it cracks quietly in half — an ominous fissure in a movie that in its best moments captures the sensation of a gradually splintering reality.
The story concerns two evacuees, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), an attractive married couple who are also both amateur theater actors appearing in a community production of Arthur Miller’s perennial Death of a Salesman. In Farhadi’s last film, the disappointing French production The Past, the director struggled badly to reconcile his interest in contemporary Iranian society with a Parisian setting, but the Middle East–Meets-West dynamics of The Salesman are fascinating (doubly so in light of Farhadi’s previous experience as a theater director).
There is, for instance, some sharply observed comedy in the scenes showing the troupe rehearsing their production and being forced to tiptoe around the fact that one of the characters is a prostitute (a plot detail that was more acceptable in 1940s America than Iran in 2016). The Salesman jabs self-reflexively at the dilemma of how art can exist in a repressive climate, but the real trick of Farhadi’s screenplay is how the themes and ideas of Miller’s play are used to frame the off-stage drama, which kicks into gear just after Emad and Rana relocate to a new apartment whose previous tenant refuses to return for her possessions, leaving them feeling like intruders in their own home.
It’s difficult to say too much more about the plot of The Salesman without spoiling its carefully calibrated plot twists. Suffice it to say that, as in A Separation, Farhadi displays amazing confidence in leaving an absolutely crucial bit of narrative information off-screen for longer than any Hollywood filmmaker this side of M. Night Shyamalan would ever dare. He lets the enigma around this bit of blank space register as missing time, for the audience and for the characters, whose confusion gets channeled into an all-consuming need to know exactly what happened and why.
Hosseini won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year, and the way that he modulates Emad’s shift from an everyman figure into an obsessive, would-be avenger is reminiscent of the lead in the nightmarish Dutch classic The Vanishing, in which a man risks his life to unravel the mystery of his girlfriend’s disappearance. Farhadi’s story line isn’t quite so pulpy, but it builds to a similar cat-and-mouse confrontation, with the difference being that the ostensible villain here is not remotely a figure of fear. Instead, it’s Emad who becomes the aggressor, in ways that take him out of his upper-middle-class comfort zone, even as he literally returns to his old apartment block — a ruined space representing old frustrations, that increasingly comes to seem like it’s going to be the scene of a brand-new crime.
If The Salesman is ultimately less powerful than A Separation, it’s not due to a failure of nerve: The ending manages the difficult feat of being satisfyingly unsatisfying, and the final shots smartly invert the underlying relationship between real life and scripted drama (our last look at Emad in his Willy Loman guise is charged with a sinister irony). What’s missing this time out is the sense that the drama signifies in some larger way, like it did A Separation, with its unforgettable image of a wizened patriarch lying helplessly at the center of a spiraling vortex of class and gender warfare, or the excellent About Elly, a quietly sinister chamber piece that mashes up The Big Chill with L’Avventura en route to exposing warped bourgeois pathologies.
By comparison, The Salesman’s social commentary comes off as rote and repetitive. Farhadi’s filmmaking is Oscar-worthy: He’s become a master at constructing elaborate contraptions to ensnare his characters. Hopefully, his cinema won’t end up in its own immaculate trap.