Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi
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The roll call of filmmakers who have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film twice is a short and remarkable one: René Clément, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. This year, Asghar Farhadi – the first director outside of Europe and the first for over 40 years – joined them, collecting a second Academy Award to go with the one he received for A Separation five years ago.
There’s a school of thought that Farhadi’s win last month was due to Hollywood rallying around a fellow filmmaker after the Iranian director was banned under Donald Trump’s executive order. The more accurate interpretation is that Farhadi deserves the plaudits. The Salesman won two awards at Cannes – Best Screenplay and Best Actor – and it was his fourth film in a row to win prizes at major European festivals.
His latest film proves that Farhadi is working at an incredible level, forging stories that move like thrillers but are layered as uncomfortable moral fables about the awful choices life inflicts on us. Chance events explode with unseen consequences, and Farhadi’s camera navigates the chaos with unflinching fluidity, probing the characters as their assumptions and prejudices collapse around them.
Collapse isn’t just metaphorical in The Salesman. The film begins with a panicky evacuation from the apartment building where Emad (Hosseini) and Rana (Alidoosti) live, and the shaky foundations are soon to be rattled further. They’re nearing the end of rehearsals for Death Of A Salesman, so a fellow cast member Babak (Karimi) hooks them up with an apartment recently vacated by a mysterious tenant. Then, one night, Rana leaves the door open for her husband and is attacked, leading Emad into a dark obsession with tracking down the culprit.
It sounds relatively simple, but Farhadi’s plotting is far too intricate to be a mere revenge tale. The film addresses questions of privacy and public scandal, the duties of living in a community versus the responsibilities of being in a marriage. Ironically juxtaposed with this is Miller’s fable of disappointment and failure – if that play is under threat of being censored by the state, then what benefit is there in Emad reporting his wife’s attack to the police? Somehow, Emad – an affluent, much-loved teacher – finds himself shaken by doubt, becoming crueller and less likeable, as he attempts to resolve his feelings of guilt and anger. In turn, Rana is forced to deal with her emotional and physical recovery almost in isolation, as her husband’s priorities become more skewed. Are they somehow starting to portray, in real life, the performances they are giving in Miller’s play? Or are the masks beginning to slip?
To say more would be to remove the unexpected twists of the story – except to say that, by the final act, Farhadi has conjured up a quite brilliant parallel to the play, as Miller’s themes percolate into an empty Tehran apartment that’s become the unlikely stage for a showdown. It is bold, clever storytelling, brimming with intellectual ideas but driven by Farhadi’s empathy for a helplessly sad situation that is driving everybody to despair.