Before the Trump Administration banned all Iranian citizens for 30 days, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” was a thrilling, intelligent look at the aftermath of a traumatic event. Now, it’s an essential one.
Farhadi excels at involving portraits of people infuriated by circumstances beyond their control; over the past week, he joined them. The filmmaker, who won an Oscar in 2012 for “A Separation” and landed another nomination for “The Salesman,” has said he won’t attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony even if he’s granted an exception by the U.S. government. In a statement, Farhadi explained his decision as a “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.” More importantly, he diagnosed the cause of the ban as indicative of an “us and them mentality” designed to “create a fearful image of ‘them’ and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.”
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While awards season is a glittering distraction from the real world, it’s also an international platform, and Farhadi has wisely used this opportunity to take a stand. He’s not the first: Michael Moore famously spoke out against the Iraq war when he won the Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine,” and Marlon Brando sent Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place when he won for “The Godfather” to protest the depiction of Native Americans in film. But Farhadi’s decision further highlights the reasons why “The Salesman” actually deserves to win the Oscar for best foreign language film. Not only is it one of the strongest entries in this category, but it’s also the most relevant.
While the movie doesn’t address issues of immigration or an oppressed citizenry, it offers a brilliant portrait of paranoia that emerges from an unknown threat. At its center is Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a high school teacher who moonlights as an actor in a local production of “Death of a Salesman” opposite his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). Farhadi doesn’t shy from allegory in his Cannes-winning screenplay, as the foundations of the family’s life literally rock from the opening scene, when their apartment nearly collapses and they’re forced to move out. After they take up residence in a new unit where a prostitute used to reside, their situation goes from bad to worse: One day, Rana leaves the apartment open for her husband as he returns from the grocery store and gets in the shower; when he gets back, he finds that a mysterious home invader has assaulted Rana and left her unconscious.
The aftermath of this event transforms into a fascinating treatise on law and order. Presumably not trusting the authorities to track down the culprit, Emad takes matters into his own hands, following clues that lead him to a mesmerizing confrontation in the movie’s third act. The actors excel at conveying the unseemly nature of their circumstances, particularly for the way they’re constantly incapable of fully expressing their anger and discontent. Farhadi’s script is dense with ideas about gender relations and social responsibility even as it dances around any blatant monologues to that effect. The occasional glimpses of the Arthur Miller production, with its fiery depiction of blue-collar frustrations, provide further context to the way Emad feels the burden of responsibility to support his wife even as she asks him to back down.
As with “A Separation” and “The Past,” Farhadi excels at understatement; in a brilliant move, he leaves two key moments off-screen, forcing viewers to imagine the details, in much the same way that his characters must constantly grapple with unreliable information. Even as Emad closes in on the culprit, he’s faced with a barrage of excuses that leaves him uncertain what to believe. Unlike Paul Verhoeven’s playfully subversive “Elle,” Farhadi sets the stage for a rape-revenge scenario in subtle terms that have less to do with the possibility of payback than the question of what it would actually accomplish.
Though it landed distribution with Amazon Studios and Cohen Media, “The Salesman” hasn’t been the easiest sell. It screened late in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, in the immediate wake of critical enthusiasm raining down on “Toni Erdmann.” Some critics found the male perspective of Farhadi’s movie problematic, while others simply felt the scenario was far simpler than his previous efforts. (I missed the opportunity to see “The Salesman” during this window and other festival opportunities further down the line, and caught up to it this past week, a few days after it opened in the U.S.) However, “The Salesman” distills many of Farhadi’s recurring themes to their essence: The futility of the law, mysterious events with no tangible solution, and the boundaries of language all merge into a suspenseful ride. It’s a Hitchcockian tale of justice in which justice remains elusive.
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“Toni Erdmann” is still the most audacious creative achievement among this year’s nominees: Maren Ade’s tonally adventurous look at a young workaholic stalked by her father is both hilarious and heartbreaking over the course of its epic running time. And some pundits, including our own Anne Thompson, believe that most Oscar voters will favor the traditional crowdpleaser, “A Man Called Ove.”
But “The Salesman” stands out for the way it presents a dark conundrum and leaves viewers to ponder the ensuing hypothetical: What would you do, and what should you do, when faced with the opportunity to mete out punishment on your own terms? Farhadi wisely avoids a precise answer, instead following Emad through a bumpy ride as he works through the possibilities. The relationship drama is a springboard for much grander concerns.
Ultimately, “The Salesman” focuses on what it takes to make a moral decision in an age riddled with moral ambiguities. At a time when governmental authority has divided the nation, that makes it a true movie of the moment. Academy voters would be wise to recognize it as such.