The Salesman has become indelibly connected to the idiocies of Trump’s attempted bans on Muslims entering America. Director Asghar Farhadi’s film duly won the Foreign Language Oscar with the director unable to attend the ceremony. In the UK, where the film is scheduled for release this week, preview screenings were arranged for Oscar night in response to the ban. If all this publicity means more people are encouraged to see the film that will be a good thing. The Salesman is an excellent film and it continues Farhadi’s astounding run of productions. In many ways the film uses a similar narrative form to Farhadi’s earlier films and this is the only reason why I would personally have preferred to see Toni Erdmann win the Oscar as something new.
The Salesman is most like Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011) in the way it demonstrates how the restrictions on social behaviour and the barriers to open discussion in Iranian society lead to potential tragedy. It’s also ‘different’ for two reasons. First, it operates as a mise en abîme – a narrative featuring a play within a play and encouraging the audience to consider how in this instance Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman might offer a commentary on the lives of the characters and on Iranian society generally. Second, Farhadi supplies a dramatic ending with something of a twist in the narrative (which I don’t intend to spoil).
The film opens with an urgent evacuation of a building. The reason for the evacuation is not immediately apparent, but will eventually be revealed as a consequence of poor building regulations – a literal weakness in the fabric of Iranian society. A couple is forced to move out of their flat. They are Emad, a high school/college teacher and his younger wife Rana (whose occupation I didn’t catch, but I think she is a student/writer?). They are also leading players in a theatre company which is staging Death of a Salesman. The director/producer of the play and a family friend, Babak, finds the couple a new apartment at short notice but unfortunately the previous tenant has left behind much of her furniture and belongings that must be stored until she collects them. There are early indications that Emad and Rana are going through a rough patch in their marriage and it may be partly related to a lack of children. Emad is clearly having problems with his teaching and a class of young men who can’t really see the point of a screening of the classic Iranian film The Cow (1969) directed by Dariush Mehrjui. The young men are not ‘bad lads’ – rather, we get the impression that Emad just doesn’t have the time to prepare his classes properly. More problematic is an incident in which Rana appears to have been assaulted in the bathroom of the new flat, requiring stitches to a wound on her head. Emad is shocked by what has happened to his wife and decides to take matters into his own hands (Rana does not report the incident to the police) and we, as the audience, don’t have a clear idea of what happened. I don’t think I’ll spoil any more of the plot development, only to say that what follows is in many ways a critique of masculinity in contemporary Iran. Farhadi cleverly introduces this issue by showing Emad being humiliated in a taxi by a middle-aged woman who, for no apparent reason, refuses to sit next to him. The humiliation is compounded by involving a third party, one of Emad’s own students who feels embarrassed for his teacher. The more Emad discovers about the previous tenant of the flat, the more obsessed he becomes about finding out what happened to Rana and trying to find someone to blame. At this point the narrative begins to resemble an almost Hitchcockian thriller.
The production of Death of a Salesman is clearly affected by these events involving two of its leading actors. I don’t know the play well enough to comment on the possible links between the two narratives except to recognise that Miller and Farhadi are both concerned with characters who are suffering from their own inadequacies as well as from the problems in the wider society. Farhadi in interviews mentions the importance of the humiliation of different characters and the sense that in both Miller’s play and his own group of characters there are questions about how much certain characters are able to cope with the modernising forces of city living. He suggests that Teheran today and New York in the late 1940s display similar influences of this modernising process. He does explain the links in interviews, but to discuss them here would spoil the narrative.
The Salesman is a deftly plotted film with marvellous performances from its ensemble cast led by two of Farhadi’s regulars. Shahab Hosseini appeared in both About Elly and A Separation. Taraneh Alidoosti has appeared in four Farhadi films. She was ‘Elly’ and also the young female characters in both Beautiful City (2004) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006). Babak Karimi as the producer of the play and all round ‘fixer’ has also worked on earlier Farhadi films. He is a major figure in Iranian cinema with a career as an editor and on one occasion as a producer for Abbas Kiarostami on Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). Farhadi has honed his methods through work in theatre and on TV and now he is able to work with these talented actors to produce complex dramas that seem simple on the surface, but which contain so much in their many layers of meaning. I note from the recent preview screening of The Salesman in London that one of Farhadi’s UK champions is Mike Leigh and looking back at my review of About Elly in a festival screening I see that I mentioned Mike Leigh in thinking about the three films from Farhadi I had seen at that point. Now it is five films and Farhadi’s talent is visible to an international audience. There is a lot more to say about The Salesman, but ‘opening up’ the text at this point would spoil the film for readers and anyway I would need to see the film again to understand more about how Farhadi does it.
The trailer below reveals slightly more of the plot, so don’t watch if you want to avoid any clues as to what happens.
About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?
From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.
I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?
Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).
The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.
Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).
Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)
Trailer with English subs:
Asghar Farhadi is the second of the featured directors in the festival with his latest film Nader and Simin: A Separation showing in the Main Competition. That film has already been shown in many territories, including the UK where it has been a big hit, not least with the contributors on this blog. I was eager to see the two earlier films by this director showing in the festival. These last three films by Farhadi are clearly all the work of the same extremely talented filmmaker and although they present three distinct stories, there are common themes, a common cultural location – Tehran’s middle classes – and the same sense of a subtle satire. I can almost imagine a DVD box set entitled ‘Marriage Iranian Style‘.
Fireworks Wednesday takes place over the Tuesday and ‘eve’ of the Wednesday of Persian New Year in Iran (thus the Iranian title of the film, referring to a Zoroastrian festival). There appears to be a similar sense of carnival and mayhem in the streets, with the letting off of fireworks and impromptu bonfires, as there is in the UK on November 5th (i.e. Bonfire Night and also the customs of Mischief Night). This then becomes the setting for a narrative about marriage. The narrative agent is Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young woman from the outer suburbs who is just days away from her marriage to a young man she clearly loves. She rides into the city as a pillion passenger on his motorbike and goes straight to the employment agency who send her to the other side of the city for a day as a cleaner. She then finds herself in the middle of a marital ‘situation’ in which Mozdhe is very much on edge in her large apartment. One of the windows is broken, all the furniture is covered in plastic and there is a general air of chaos. Roohi understands that Mozdhe and her husband Morteza are to go on holiday the next day but Mozdhe seems more concerned that Morteza may be having an affair with Simin, the divorcée next door who runs a beauty salon. Roohi is a ‘good girl’ who finds herself confused by both Mozdhe and Simin. She doesn’t know who to believe when Mozdhe asks her to spy on Simin (who gives Roohi some beauty treatment as a wedding gift). She accepts people for who they say they are, but ends up telling white lies to protect Mozdhe and Simin from each other. The complex plotting then leads Roohi to be forced to stay with Mozdhe’s family all day and to be driven home late in the evening through streets full of fireworks by Morteza.
The four central characters in the film are carefully drawn in the script by Farhadi and Mani Haghighi and beautifully acted. These are complicated individuals and there is no easy and quick identification with them. Mozdhe in particular is a woman on the edge who we both feel for and also want to scold. For me what is most interesting is the way that she treats Roohi. At some moments she seems cold and dismissive giving curt instructions but at other moments she is considerate and appears to want to help the younger woman. Is she a good or bad employer in the eyes of her cleaner/maid (Roohi is asked to carry out a very wide range of tasks)? The almost arrogant confidence of the Iranian middle classes, especially the women, is a feature of these three Farhadi films. The women are relatively wealthy and well-educated but also trapped by certain social conventions. I’m not sure the extent to which Farhadi is being satirical by exposing the behaviour of the Tehran middle classes. It certainly outrages one IMDb commentator who damns the film: “Awful, couldn’t be worse. If we have two or three of such movies per year, that will be more than enough for our society to break down.” (‘m-mirehei’ from Iran) This seems like a very conservative view. From a Western perspective the film seems ‘honest’ in its depiction of the characters.
The chador plays an interesting role in the film which I take to be metaphorical. In the opening sequence, when Roohi is on the motorbike, her chador gets caught in the back wheel, throwing her off the bike and jamming the wheel. I found this quite disturbing as in a famous incident in 1927 the dancer Isadora Duncan was killed by her own long scarf when it became tangled in the open spoke wheels of the car in which she was a passenger and her neck was broken. Roohi survives unhurt but the chador is a little torn. Later Mozdhe borrows the chador (without telling Roohi) and wears it in causing a scene outside Morteza’s office. This leaves Roohi ‘exposed’ (though she still has her headscarf) when she has to go and collect Mozdhe’s son from nursery school. I could do with some guidance here but there seems to be a deliberate and provocative reference to the chador and what it means about ‘respectability’ for Iranian women. I won’t ‘spoil’ what happens in these scenes but Mozdhe’s actions both put pressure on Roohi and in some way support her own fight against her husband.
Although the specifics of Iranian society are important to the film’s narrative, there is a strong universal appeal as well and there was a large and appreciative audience for the film in Oslo. There are at least two versions of the film free to view online if you search, one with subtitles and one with German titles taken from German television. But no release yet in the UK! The actors in these films are clearly important stars in Iran – see this fansite for Hedye Tehrani. I confess to having spent a long time in cinemas gazing at beautiful women and I have to say that many of the women featured in Fahradi’s films look just as stunning with their headscarves and long coats as most Hollywood stars in designer outfits. The excellent camerawork by Hossein Jafarian helps of course.