By Jamie Iwata (Portland, OR, USA)
If there’s one word that I would use to describe Iranian cinema, it’s humanistic. American news stations and politicians like Donald Trump will often create a shallow image of Iran as an antagonistic and violent society that would take pleasure in the destruction of other nations. But if you watch a film from the same country, you’ll see a much different story. Masterful filmmakers like Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi use neorealist influences to provide intelligent, objective, and heartwarming insight into the human condition. It’s been that way for many decades, and at the forefront of this extraordinary movement is Asghar Farhadi.
Farhadi is perhaps the most internationally successful Iranian director since Abbas Kiarostami. He was responsible for winning his country’s first Oscar in recognition of his 2011 masterpiece, A Separation. His next piece, called The Past (2013), saw Farhadi branch out into making a film in France featuring stars like Berenice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet). This was partially done in order to avoid the censorship that many of his peers suffer when trying to make a movie against oppression in Iran. Now Farhadi has returned home to release The Salesman, a new monument which proves that no matter where he makes a film, Asghar Farhadi will still be one of the world’s most gifted directors.
In The Salesman, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a married couple looking for a place to live after their previous apartment experiences a near collapse. Thanks to a friend in their acting troupe, the couple find a new apartment. It is then gradually revealed by the neighbors that the previous tenant was a prostitute. This provides an intriguing mystery to the apartment as we look at objects like a bicycle clearly meant for a child. One night, Rana is violently attacked in the shower by an unknown assailant. This sets events in motion as Emad comes closer to discovering who attacked his wife. I won’t even dare reveal any more plot points so as to not spoil the intriguing twists and turns that make the film so compelling.
For admirers of Farhadi’s work, The Salesman will seem quite familiar. It covers typical themes of marriage and gender differences while using naturalistic images to paint a portrait of a contemporary urban society in Iran. I certainly noticed many of these things in my first viewing. When I watched the movie for a second time, I paid more attention to the intricacies of Farhadi’s storytelling and the silent acts of contemplation which are simply dazzling.
Farhadi is patient and decisive in what he decides to show the audience and at what time he reveals an important twist. No shot feels meaningless or passionless. This makes The Salesman feel like a living and breathing human experience where you learn new things and make your own judgements of people. Every character does at least something that can be seen as good or bad, but Farhadi never once asks us to classify these people as heroes or villains. What he really asks for is empathy, something that America needs more of in light of the current political climate.
This quest for empathy all leads to one of the most stunning climaxes I’ve seen in any film over the past two years. This climax doesn’t center on action or violence, but is instead a silent act of judgement between the characters and the audience over whether our protagonists have done the right or wrong thing. Because the movie is such a complex moral play, there aren’t really any answers. As the great Ang Lee once said though, “We got to keep making movies because there are no answers. There are only good questions.”
Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are two big stars in Iran that have both worked with Farhadi on other films. The performances these two give are exquisite examples of how understatement and reservation can say so much. Hosseini’s remarkable face contains a variety of emotions while Alidoosti can break your heart with the shift of an eye.
The title of this movie stems from Emad and Rana playing the lead roles in a local production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. While it’s not clear at first glance how Miller’s play connects with the characters of the film, I feel like that’s not as important as deciphering how the specific scenes of the play that we see project Farhadi’s musings. Through Miller’s play and Farhadi’s film, we observe how women are treated in a brutal patriarchy, the sacrifices people make, and how mistakes can have life changing consequences.
All of these ideas are something that can speak to Iranian society, but what makes The Salesman a special film is how the feelings projected on the screen are so universal. Whether you’re Iranian or American, anyone can understand this film because these are natural human feelings that everybody has felt at some point in their lives. The Salesman is another shining example of how Asghar Farhadi is an introspective humanist who also happens to be an incredible storyteller.