The Salesman is nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. But if the film wins, the director won’t be there to receive his prize.
Asghar Farhadi, already an Oscar-winner, in the same category, for his 2011 film A Separation, is from Iran, one of seven majority-Muslim countries whose citizens have been denied entry to the U.S. under Donald Trump’s hastily assembled executive order.
Farhadi released a statement saying that even if he was granted special dispensation to attend, he would not. “To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another… has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity,” he said. “I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”
The controversy has overshadowed the release of Farhadi’s film, which won Best Screenplay and Best Actor at Cannes and opens Friday at Fifth Avenue.
A middle-class couple in Tehran has to flee their apartment block when fissures suddenly appear in the walls and window panes crack menacingly. We know right away that Emad is a good guy: he runs back in to carry out a neighbour’s handicapped adult son on his back.
During the day, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a schoolteacher, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) stays at home. By night they are both talented members of a theatre troupe putting the finishing touches on Death of a Salesman, where Emad plays hapless salesman Willy Lomax and Rana plays his wife.
One of their fellow actors comes to the rescue and offers his flat, recently vacated by a woman who left all her belongings behind. “She led a wild life,” is all that neighbours will say of the former tenant. Emad and Rana move in; the woman’s belongings are left out in the rain.
One night Rana answers the buzzer, thinking it must be her husband, and then goes for a shower. But it isn’t Emad who enters.
There is a brutal assault, followed by a complex series of emotions but little discussion about what actually happened, even between husband and wife. Cultural dissimilarities are clear in the way there is no direct mention of sexual assault (in fact, it isn’t even clear that Rana was examined in hospital). “She slipped in the shower,” is the first lame reason for Rana’s injuries given to neighbours and cast members.
Scenes of the play are juxtaposed with scenes of the couple’s now-joyless daily life, with Emad focused obsessively — Willy Lomax-style — on finding the attacker and Rana afraid to be alone in the apartment. There is an unconventional, un-Hollywood resolution of sorts that is sure to spark discussion.
Small moments give the film texture and paint a fuller picture of the culture: Emad’s experience with a woman and one of his students in a cab; the couple’s interaction with a troupe member’s toddler; Emad’s outburst to a fatherless pupil after an uncharacteristically light scene of the students taking selfies with Emad, asleep in class.
Farhadi may or may not win the prize on Feb. 26, but you can support the director and commit an easy act of protest by seeing his beautifully acted, tense and thoughtful film.
The Salesman opens Friday at Fifth Avenue.