On the morning of January 24, 2017, the Academy honored Iranian director Asghar Farhadi with an Oscar nomination for his vibrant film, The Salesman. That same afternoon it was announced that Donald Trump was poised to sign an executive order banning travelers from seven Middle Eastern and African countries. One of those countries was Iran. The ban took effect less than 3 days later, making it impossible through normal means for Farhadi to obtain a visa to enter the USA. Although there was vague talk of a waiver, the director issued an elegant statement, explaining that the circumstances and terms of any such exception would be unacceptable to him. Asghar Farhadi will not be attending this year’s Oscars and, if he wins, will not be present for the ovation that his distinguished presence would inspire.
When Farhadi won the Oscar in 2012 for his film, A Separation, he became the first Iranian director ever to win an Academy Award. He gave one of the most moving and inspiring speeches of the evening:
At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.
Farhadi’s speech feels even more relevant today, given the turn of events that this country has taken in the 4 weeks since Trump was elected and sworn in as president. I felt compelled to write this FYC focusing on the Iranian legend’s work as a filmmaker and his most recent achievement, The Salesman.
Asghar Farhadi’s films are morally and often emotionally complicated narratives that address a range of urgent socio-economic issues like the justice, class, and gender. His nuance and sensitivity is in stark contrast to Hollywood’s usual treatment of Iran, which too often depicts the country and its people in a negative light that reflects and reinforces ill-informed perceptions. The Wrap points out this simplistic bias in such as films Argo, Not Without My Daughter, and even in Oliver Stone’s depiction of Alexander and the ancient Persian Empire, just to name a few.
What Farhadi strives to do in his work is take the Western representation of Iran, remove the fearful blinders, and illuminate his country with an artistic light unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed — indeed, in a light that’s different from what the Iranian government itself would prefer to present.
In The Salesman, a young couple — Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) — have just moved into a furnished apartment much nicer their previous place in a badly damaged building that became unlivable. With more space, they have plans to expand their family. They’re part of a small independent theater group, in the process of rehearsing for a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Although Farhadi’s protagonists here are modern, progressive and forward-thinking, they still observe deeply ingrained cultural traditions imposed by previous generations. That Rana still wears her headscarf hijab reminds us of the customs and conventions that she feels an obligation to abide.
Late one evening, after Emad is delayed at the theater, Rana buzzes open the door to the building’s main entry, believing that her husband has rung up. But it isn’t Emad. An intruder finds her in the shower, and Rana is subjected to a brutal assault. We don’t see the full extent of what’s happening as Farhadi cleverly juxtaposes the assault crosscut with scenes from the play on the stage across town. When Emad does at last return home, he finds traces of blood splattered on his way upstairs. In the apartment, his wife is gone. Neighbors break the awful news, and he rushes to the hospital. Rana is traumatized and dazed, streaked with in blood, but she has survived.
What exactly happened remains ambiguous. Another storytelling strategy Farhadi likes to employ is to leave his audiences wondering that way — “because we have to build the rest in our own imagination,” as he told me when I interviewed him last year at the Pacific Design Center. The words ‘rape’ and ‘whore’ (the apartment’s previous owner was a call girl) are never spoken. But Farhadi details Rana’s trauma in a manner that leads you to assume this is what happened to her.
What actually happened remains for us to guess, and we can only imagine. Since it was Rana who accidentally unlocked the door for her assailant, she is not only traumatized by what transpired, the misplaced weight of responsibility lies heavily on her shoulders as well. In a matter of minutes we watch her go from being a confident theater actress on stage to a timid and shamed victim. Again, Farhadi alludes to the strictly conscribed role of women in Iranian society, which has the effect of depriving Rana of personal agency, unable to do more than hint with vague allusions about what happened to her. She’s even reluctant to go to the police to file a report, out of fear of disgrace for what has happened to her.
Frustrated and conflicted, Emad sets out to seek revenge, to avenge his family’s honor. The intruder has carelessly left many clues behind that point to his identity. But Emad’s determination to administer justice seems only to amplify the tangle of guilt, resentment and anger that wraps emotional ropes around the couple. Meanwhile, the continued juxtaposition of the Arthur Miller’s play parallels the couples off-stage lives with a web of irrational suspicions, bottled-up rage, and sexual tensions. Emad’s murky determination and escalating disillusionment mirrors that of Willy Loman, deftly illustrating the universality of drama. Farid Sajjadi Hosseni appears as Naser, a salesman who emerges near the end of the film, plagued with similar layers of guilt. It’s here, in the third act, that Farhadi brings us full circle as the momentous parallels begin to converge between theater and cinema, reality and shadow.
Farhadi’s characters began their journey together before spiraling down different paths, transforming each of them in unexpected ways. The cinematography, the editing, the production design all provide striking support for the tragedy unfolding before us. An earthquake that splinters window panes with chilling cracks early on is symbolic of the abrupt shattering that is about to befall this couple. The crumbling building and its weak foundation is clearly representative of the couple’s precarious marriage without ever hammering the point. All the precipitous collapsing and unraveling, inside and out, happens too fast and all too realistically for any such psychological motifs to feel forced or preconceived.
Like those of any virtuoso, Farhadi’s films can be read a number of ways. but his mastery is so polished we’re led to make our own discoveries, without ever feeling guided. The Salesman is a film filled with intense heartbreak and fragile redemption but, like much of his work, it also exists as an essential portrait of Iranian society, populated with characters who confront the same moral choices, and struggle to overcome the same humans frailties as every family faces worldwide. His films have an incomparable universal resonance to which each of us, in one way or another, can relate.
After seeing The Salesman, you’ll want to seek out the rest of Farhadi’s astonishing body of work — from A Separation to Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly to Canaan. Observe the recurring themes of ethical ambiguity that run through all his films. Revel in his masterful compositions, fluid camera movement, and meaningful staging, but most of all get to know his characters, for their stories have a layered richness not to be missed.
I truly hope Oscar Voters choose The Salesman as their choice for Best Foreign Language film this year. His win will speak volumes to the horrendous injustice and absurd policies that Trump and his handlers want to impose on America. In the wake of their clumsy ban on thousands of desperate and bewildered Muslim travellers, the message that an Oscar win for Farhadi would send a message that will surely be felt like a slap in the face of those who intend to infringe on our liberties. I sincerely plead with the Academy to use the best global communication tools at its disposal to enable Asghar Farhadi to adress the the world live, if his name is read out, to let us hear what this great filmmaker has to say when accepting his second Oscar. But all politics aside, no matter what comes to pass on Oscar Night, please trust me, this is a movie that needs to be seen. As brilliant as all the other international films are in this category, none deserves the win this year as much as The Salesman.
We’ll conclude with Farhadi’s January 31 statement on his decision not to attend the 89th Annual Academy Awards.
I regret to announce via this statement that I have decided to not attend the Academy Awards Ceremony alongside my fellow members of the cinematic community.
Over the course of the past few days and despite the unjust circumstances which have risen for the immigrants and travelers of several countries to the United States, my decision had remained the same: to attend this ceremony and to express my opinions about these circumstances in the press surrounding the event. I neither had the intention to not attend nor did I want to boycott the event as a show of objection, for I know that many in the American film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are opposed to the fanaticism and extremism which are today taking place more than ever. Just as I had stated to my distributor in the United States on the day the nominees were announced, that I would be attending this ceremony along with my cinematographer, I continued to believe that I would be present at this great cultural event.
However, it now seems that the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip. I would therefore like to convey via this statement what I would have expressed to the press were I to travel to the United States. Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an “us and them” mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of “them” and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.
This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hardliners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.
However, I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences. I believe that the root cause of many of the hostilities among nations in the world today must be searched for in their reciprocal humiliation carried out in its past and no doubt the current humiliation of other nations are the seeds of tomorrow’s hostilities. To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another is not a new phenomenon in history and has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity. I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the other six countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.
Asghar Farhadi, Iran