Asghar Farhadi’s fractured cinema
From 'About Elly' to 'The Salesman', the Iranian director has delivered one fraught, complex stunner after another
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (just released in select cities) takes its title from Arthur Miller’s best-known play. Death Of A Salesman is performed by a Tehran troupe in the film, and the first few shots are of an empty theatre, with stagehands at work and the cast warming up off-screen. Then, suddenly, we’re jolted from a world being constructed to one coming apart. In a chaotic, unbroken 2-minute sequence, we see a young married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), fleeing their collapsing building as it groans and shakes and cracks form in the windows.
Rana and Emad’s world will soon fracture further, but before that, Farhadi sketches their life in a series of deft strokes. Both are stage actors (they play the central couple in the Miller play); Emad is also a schoolteacher, popular with his students. They seem fairly well off, artistically minded; they’re considering starting a family, and are on the lookout for a new flat. They’re pointed to one by a friend, and it’s only after they move in that they learn that the previous inhabitant was a prostitute.
One night when Emad is out, Rana is badly injured when a stranger enters their house and walks in on her in the bathroom (whether there was physical assault is left ambiguous). This shocking incident sets up the rest of the film, but a key scene some 20 minutes later has little to do with it. Emad, exhausted, puts on a film for his students and dozes off in the dark. As schoolchildren anywhere in the world might, they start fooling around, making a video of their teacher sleeping. Emad wakes and directs his frustration at a student with the phone. He threatens to involve his parents, only to be told by the others that the child’s father is dead.
The emotional seesawing of this scene is pure Farhadi. We start the scene feeling terrible about Rana, but the children are undeniably funny. We crack a smile at Emad sleeping, then feel bad for him, then worry that he’s being excessive. The same shifting of sympathies will happen under more challenging circumstances later in the film, as Emad becomes obsessed with finding the intruder. The unravelling of personalities pushed to extremes is a hallmark of this director’s work. You identify with a Farhadi character at your own risk; there’s always a moment of ugly, human failing waiting to happen.
This February, The Salesman won Farhadi his second foreign-language Oscar. He had earlier won the same award for A Separation, which put him on the global cinema map when it released in 2011. Viewers stunned by the film’s frenetic pace, intricate structure and psychological acuity dove into his back catalogue, discovering similarly accomplished works like Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly (which won Farhadi the Silver Bear for best director at the 2009 Berlinale). By the time The Past premiered at Cannes in 2013, the world had caught up with Farhadi.
Farhadi is from Iran, a nation that exploded on to the global cinema scene in the 1990s. The largely concurrent rise of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Majid Majidi signalled a new kind of cinematic language: intimate, rough-hewn, lyrical. It didn’t matter that Kiarostami and Majidi made markedly different films—they were all grouped together under the broad banner of “Iranian cinema", which was soon to become cinephile spinach, something you were supposed to appreciate whether or not you liked it.
If Farhadi stands apart from this group, it’s not just because he came to prominence in the 2000s but because his features didn’t fit the popular perception of what Iranian films are like. Intricately plotted, masterfully edited, his films pushed the family drama into the realm of the psychological thriller. His narratives are often constructed around an incident—a disappearance in About Elly, an altercation in A Separation—whose implications then ripple outwards in surprising ways. As Ratik Asokan, writing for Guernica, put it: “While conventional thrillers arrow towards their climax, Farhadi’s plots are widening gyres: they grow out, and often away from, a climactic event that occurs rather early on."
In 2012, Asghar Farhadi submitted his 10 choices for Sight & Sound magazine’s best films of all time poll. His list is eclectic—the selections range from Take The Money And Run to Tokyo Story—and while there might be a danger in reading too much into it, two entries strike me as significant. Nearly all of Farhadi’s films involve multiple, competing perspectives of a single event, and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon—the first title on his list—is the urtext for this sort of stuff. There’s also Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red, a somewhat surprising inclusion until you think about how closely Farhadi’s films, with their fraught energy and moral complexity, resemble early Kieślowski films like Blind Chance and A Short Film About Killing (it would be fascinating if the Iranian, like the Polish master, takes a mid-career turn towards overt visual stylization).
Farhadi is shooting his next film with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Spain; this will be his second feature outside Iran after The Past, which was made in France. Shooting in another country holds the attraction of a brief holiday from the Iranian censors, whom Farhadi once compared to the unpredictable British weather in an interview. Though his anti-Trump statements in the wake of the travel ban might have secured him the temporary goodwill of the authorities, Farhadi will be aware how quickly this attitude can change. In 2010, during the making of A Separation, he spoke in favour of Panahi (then, as now, banned from directing) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who left the country to escape official restrictions). The government immediately placed a ban on the film’s production, lifting it only once Farhadi apologized.
Farhadi has said he will not make political or “message" films. Whether or not this is a bit of misdirection aimed at the authorities, his films are, if not straightforwardly political, certainly immersed deeply in, and often critical of, Iranian society, particularly the position of women and the egos of men. We see this in The Salesman, where even a decent, broad-minded person like Emad can’t help making his wife’s assault about himself. Yet—and this is where the Kieślowski comparison comes in again—even as his films reflect and confront society, they have no moral absolutes; no relationship is simple, and no one, whatever their actions, is shown as undeserving of sympathy. It’s for this reason that Farhadi’s films are most deserving of the tag that’s applied carte blanche to all of Iranian cinema: humanist.
The Salesman released in theatres in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru on 31 March.
World View is a Lounge series which look at what’s making waves on the global cinema scene.