Predicting an Oscar win for this drama in the Foreign Language Film category was a no-brainer. After all, one of the first Executive Orders issued by the newly elected President Donald Trump was a travel ban on tourists from seven largely Muslim nations. Quickly defeated by federal courts, Trump’s racist move inspired Hollywood to stand up for not only its foreign-born talents but also international filmmakers.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi refused to come to the Academy Awards and was supported by his fellow nominees in the category; they all issued a joint statement celebrating a world without borders. The win was partly political, for sure, but a very well-deserved one nonetheless.
The married couple Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti) are performing Arthur Miller’s ”Death of a Salesman” on a Tehran stage. Since the building where they’ve been staying is in danger of collapsing, the couple needs new arrangements. Thanks to a fellow actor at the theater, Emad and Rana find an apartment where the previous tenant, a woman, has just moved out and left some furniture and clothes behind. One night, when Emad is out and Rana home alone, the buzzer rings. Assuming that it’s her husband, Rana leaves the door open for him and heads into the shower.
When Emad does come home some time later, he finds traces of blood on the stairs, the door open and much more blood in the bathroom – but no trace of his wife. He finds her at the hospital where neighbors took her after finding her in the bathroom, attacked by a stranger…
Combining two stories
Anyone who saw the director’s two major international art-house hits A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) will be right at home here. Once again the story is set among middle-class Iranians, this time taking us to the world of theater. Opening with very effective spotlight shots of the stage where ”Death of a Salesman” will play out, the filmmakers use some of the same themes to connect a classic story with a new one set in our times. The connection between the play and the film is discreet, but reading some criticism of cracks in the Iranian society (the threat of a collapsing building) as well as the marriage between the two actors into it is not much of a stretch; in the play the cracks can be seen in the marriage between Willy and Linda Loman as well as the American dream.
The pacing is slow but Farhadi knows how to draw us in and get us involved in the lives of these ordinary people. The upsetting event that shakes Emad and Rana’s lives has surprising and far-reaching consequences that eventually lead to a completely gripping showdown in the last half-hour that has us pondering the value and meaning of revenge. We understand and may sympathize with Emad’s actions, but the humanistic drama that grows out of it really challenges him, Rana and us in the audience. A childish part of me started thinking of Donald Trump. Obviously he will never see this film, but it would be interesting to know if it’s possible for someone like him to even grasp the gray-zone reasoning behind that last half-hour.
Farhadi reunited with Hosseini who made such an impact in A Separation as a hotheaded husband. This is a different role, even though it relies heavily on strong emotions as well. He’s excellent and so is Alidoosti as his wife who’s struggling to recover after the assault. Farhadi has shown a great knack for working with children and this is true for The Salesman as well; there’s a few charming scenes here involving the young son of an actress who’s always hanging around backstage.
The Salesman 2016-Iran-France. 125 min. Color. Produced by Asghar Farhadi, Alexandre Mallet-Guy. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Cast: Shahab Hosseini (Emad), Taraneh Alidoosti (Rana), Babak Karimi (Babak), Farid Sajadhosseini, Mina Sadati, Maral Bani Adam.
Trivia: Original title: Forushande.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Best Actor (Hosseini), Screenplay.
Last word: “I very much like Bergman. I think he’s one of the best in the world. Out of my respect for Bergman, I put a poster for ‘Shame’ in one of the scenes of the film. One of the characteristics of Bergman’s films is that there’s a lot of emphasis on the psychology of people, on people’s individualism. And the films have a strong relationship with theater.” (Farhadi, Slant)