It’s hard to determine what separates a good director from a great one; a capable, talented filmmaker from a full-on auteur. When does a filmmaker make that leap? What keeps a good director from making the leap into the realm of transcendent talent, which has graced us with the likes of Bergman, Scorsese, Haneke, Kieslowski, Kubrick, and, more recently, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson? Defining what sets the elite apart is a tricky business, because the answers aren’t typically as easy as just lighting or framing. It’s the whole film, the entire work, that simply feels elevated by a masterful command and execution of the subject matter.
Now that he has won his second Best Foreign Film Oscar, it’s probably time—and more than likely, long overdue—to induct Asghar Farhadi into our crowd of modern masters. We could look at Farhadi’s best known films—About Elly, A Separation, and his most recent, The Salesman—and catalog all of the things that make him a master of the form, but rather than just compiling a list, I want to talk specifically about how he handles the difficult, all-too-polarizing subject of his homeland: Iran.
To say that modern America has varying, strong opinions about Iran would be an understatement on par with saying KellyAnne Conway has varying definitions of truth. The country’s very name has become a powder keg in political debate, a bogeyman for militarized foreign policy. Already, our new administration has put the country “on notice,” though what that means outside of throwing bland political shade is more or less unknown.
Which is why The Salesman, like A Separation before it, is so important. This is a film set in Iran and made by Iranians that doesn’t cater to American ideas or preconceptions about the country (I won’t pretend to be culturally savvy enough to know how it speaks to European or other Western ideas about the nation). And yet, it is a film that is very much about the sort of festering repression that the Iranian state creates through its social and legal customs.
The Salesman, much like A Separation, is about a simple situation that Farhadi (also the screenwriter) takes and molds into a web of unbearable tension. A married couple, Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, respectively), are lead players in an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. After their apartment building suffers structural damage, a fellow cast member helps them find a new apartment, which the former tenant has seemingly abandoned. But after a series of mix-ups leads to Rana being confronted (and possibly worse—the very suggestion of rape haunts the film) by an acquaintance of the former tenant, everything is thrown into the air. Emad wants to find the perpetrator, Rana suffers from post-traumatic stress, and the decision of how to handle the matter—with the police, or by themselves—threatens to tear them to pieces.
Behind all of this front-stage drama, Farhadi works with a subtle hand to show, perhaps, how a situation like this develops, and why it has the possibility to become so explosive. As Rana and Emad work on their production of Death of a Salesman, they are reminded that certain lines need to be censored, and certain sexual elements of the play toned down (which leads to a woman wearing a raincoat while declaring that she’s naked). Part of Rana and Emad’s wariness in going to the police is the idea that knowing a man came upon Rana in the shower will bring her shame and only lengthen their trauma. Indeed, that the neighbors know the situation seems to alienate Rana and Emad from the rest of their building. It is also revealed that the previous occupant of their new apartment was most likely a prostitute, and that they weren’t told because of how improper it would seem to be renting a place occupied by someone with such a job. The idea is reinforced over and over: there are some things that cannot be spoken of.
Meanwhile, as rehearsals finish and the play begins its run, we see Rana and Emad’s reaction to their home invasion spilling onto the stage. There are improvised lines, interactions that grow far more intense than are scripted, and characters falling silent out of nowhere. It isn’t the most subtle metaphor in the world, but Farhadi never overplays it, and by keeping these scenes short, compact, and blisteringly emotional, he gets his point across: in art, in performance, there is a way to tease out that which may be repressed by Iranian culture.
The Salesman, then, both is and isn’t about Iran. It’s easy to imagine the film being adapted and set in another country without losing any plot points. People across the world don’t report home invasions and assaults for fear of reliving the trauma; men from any nation may feel compelled to take some sort of personal revenge to make up for a problem they cannot solve. Trauma can eat away at any relationship, between any two people, anywhere. And that is exactly where we see Farhadi’s work as a master: the movie exists with Iran in the background, shadowing it, coloring in the blank spaces between dialogue. It is not an overt critique of the country, nor should it be; contrary to what we see on the news or hear from politicians, this is a real country with real people who just want to work and find a way to make it through the day (and occasionally put on plays), just as we do. Rather, it is a film that exposes how certain elements of Iran’s culture, specifically relating to female sexuality, can help cause a situation to spiral out of control. The balance is a tough one—to make a political film that never mentions policy, or politics, but leaves us with two fully realized, deeply human characters who are being moved ever so slightly by the situation they live in. It’s the work of a true master.