Yet another Iranian movie, The Salesman (2016), has honoured the Muslim world by winning the most prestigious international prize after Cannes Film Festival's Palme d’Or, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Director Asghar Farhadi couldn’t attended the ceremony thanks to President Trump’s travel ban, but he had pre-recorded words of wisdom to ditch at the event nonetheless. The movie is hitting theatres here as we speak. Catch it while you can before the Trump ban reaches your TV sets, in your bedrooms!
This is Asghar Farhadi’s second win at the Oscars in that category. How does he do it? Simple, using Cannes as a stepping stone to the global marketplace. It showed up at Cannes in 2016; Shahab Hosseini – the erstwhile hero of the story – won the award for Best Actor while Farhadi got the Best Screenplay award. It was from there that The Salesman got listed as Iran’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film. And the rest is history.
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There’s lessons to be learned for the rest of us here from directors who always bitch and complain about never wining internationally acclaimed prizes, without naming names. There’s even more to be learned from the movie itself, since its surprisingly relevant to the Egyptian scene and at ‘multiple’ levels at that. The opening sequence has families rapidly departing their apartment building because it’s on the verge of collapsing - sound familiar? This forces many of the residents, those who are actors, to take catnaps whenever they can at their theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Again, an all too familiar practice. When the two chief characters Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) – they’re playing Willy Loman and Linda in Miller’s classic – finally get a new apartment, it’s on the roof of a building. If that isn’t familiar to Egyptians, then I don’t know what is!
It’s this sudden movie that gets them into trouble, since the new apartment originally belonged to a woman of ill repute. A former 'customer' comes knocking one day and attacks Rana, since she leaves the door wide open, thinking it's Emad - Iranians are very trusting people, aren’t they? The rest of the movie is Emad’s story, trying to track down the would-be rapist (the man ran when neighbours responded to the yelling), while Rana copes with the emotional aftermath of almost being violated without getting the cops involved.
In another scene, from the rooftop, you here a loudspeaker in the street calling for scrap metal from people’s houses - Rubabikya, anyone?! Their old building didn’t have wobbly foundations as such but the construction site right next door – you see it in the opening sequence – shook things up a bit too much. Afterwards Emad complains: “What are they doing to this city? I wish we could tear it all down and start again.” His fellow actor replies wisely “They’ve already destroyed and rebuilt it and look how it’s turned out.”
This is the political fulcrum of the story; a reference to ‘revolution’, trying to swipe away the past all in one go and start fresh. But look what it results in? You can’t have revolutions forever. They destroy more than they build. In one scene where Emad’s playing Willy, he loses control arguing with Charley, and gets berated afterwards and told in no uncertain words never to be rude and think that verbal violence can resolve a problem. Farhadi’s no apologist since he’s had many tussles with the Islamic regime in Iran before, including over his previous Oscar win A Separation (2012), and there’s liberal hints aplenty too. There’s a scene during a rehearsal of Death of a Salesman where one of the actors can’t stop laughing because the character of the prostitute is fully dressed, in a coat, when she’s supposed to be in her undergarments – in Iran women performers have to cover their hair at all times, even when in a bedroom or bathroom scene, or even if not playing Muslims. There’s another scene at school – Emad has more than one job (hint, hint), also working as teacher – where they have to throw away some books because they’re on the banned list. And note that Emad’s surname is Etesami, and etesaam in Arabic and Farsi is a reference to protests and sits-ins.
A moment of blue collar modesty – Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Sarina Farhadi – in A Separation, a story of a country drifting apart like an estranged couple
So, sure, things are bad now but they could be a lot worse, if you decide to take the law into your own hands. And it's Emad’s task as a custodian of the next generation – teacher or actor – to point this out. He’s like a father-figure, and you can’t help but note that in an altercation with a student (he filmed Emad dozing off and snoring in class on his mobile) that the boy apologises and deletes the video file by himself. Emad insists on seeing his father but is then told that the boy’s father passed away.
Kids are the future and they have to learn to be responsible if they are going to change things ‘to the better’ when they grow up (there’s a cute scene where a little boy insists on going into the toilet by himself, not wanting Rana to undress him so he can pee). Rana also tells Emad not to go through the letters of the previous resident because that’s an invasion of privacy. You notice that there are children’s drawings on the walls of the previous resident, which means the prostitute in question was actually a single mother, and probably had to resort to ‘servicing’ men to make ends meet. She’s a victim. And so, it turns out, is the would-be rapist.
He’s an old-age pensioner with a bad heart who does odd jobs transporting furniture. All the man wanted was a little fun, to feel young again, probably, no different in principle than Arthur Miller’s Willy – the scene with the prostitute in the play involves Willy’s son being heartbroken to find out that his father isn’t the role-model he should be; father themes again. And the Iranian movie The Cow (1969) is mentioned, where a peasant goes mad and becomes a beast of burden himself, losing his humanity through suffering and deprivation.
Rana categorically refuses to expose the man in front of his own family, threatening to leave Emad if he goes through with his full plans for revenge. There’s oodles of self-criticism on display here, since Emad never fully understood the meaning of Miller’s play until he lived through similar experiences himself, as Linda only finishes paying for their house when Willy dies. You ‘feel’ Farhadi is talking about himself here, his job as a director, learning to be objective and stand outside of himself, look at his characters in an even-handed way, along with the social and political situation in Iran, which is a lot more than I can say for most Egyptian cinema as of late. And don’t even get me started on Trump!
That’s the secret to Farhadi’s success, and much of the success of Iranian cinema, at home and abroad. Multiple perspectives coupled with multiple narrative tracks, with pacing that leaves you emotionally wound-up and emotionally flatulent, but only when it’s called for. You live with the characters, feel for them – no matter how despicable – and ‘learn’ along with them, maturing you into an artistically conscious adult in your own right.
Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, the best ruler and ruled duo since Shahrayar and Shahrazad
Want to go global, that’s the recipe. And you can’t get the money and the killer cast otherwise, let alone the reputation to go abroad and make movies for others in their own backyard. Melodrama is simply not what the doctor ordered. If Americans watched movies like these, do you think they would have elected you-know-who?!!