Asghar Farhadi Is One of the Most Important Directors Working Today—And Trump Has Banned Him

The Iranian filmmaker’s masterful, Oscar-nominated The Salesman shows the futility of progressives trying to tolerantly endure repressive regimes.

Michael Atkinson

In "The Salesman," Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and her husband endure Iran's repressive laws as they would the weather--until Rana is subject to an act of violence.

Whether or not Trump’s trav­el ban pre­vents Asghar Farha­di from com­ing to the Oscars in March, it’s clear by now the Iran­ian direc­tor is some­thing of a mas­ter, from whom every nar­ra­tive film­mak­er should take a crash course in com­plex and res­o­nant sto­ry­telling. Five of his sev­en fea­tures have been released in the U.S. over the last five years, all since A Sep­a­ra­tion (2011), a stun­ning col­li­sion of per­spec­tives and agen­das cen­ter­ing on a mar­riage com­ing apart and col­lid­ing with Sharia law. Fire­works Wednes­day (2006), About Elly (2009) and The Past (2013) fea­ture char­ac­ters so con­vinc­ing­ly stretched on the rack of their own con­tra­dic­tions and society’s unbear­able demands that by com­par­i­son, Amer­i­can and Euro­pean dra­mas, even at their most hard-edged, feel mopey and sim­plis­tic. Acclaimed import­ed films can be enig­mat­ic and rar­efied, and I love those movies, but Farhadi’s pos­sess what is today a unique mix­ture of a sophis­ti­cat­ed, don’t‑show-everything aes­thet­ic and old-fash­ioned drama.

The fact that Rana left the door open boomerangs the responsibility and public humiliation back onto her (first introduced as bright and confident, she’s under a cloud of shame and trauma for the rest of the film).

His new film, Oscar nom­i­nee The Sales­man, begins with a rich metaphor any Lit 101 stu­dent can read: An entire apart­ment build­ing begins to shud­der and col­lapse, prompt­ed by con­struc­tion next door, and the occu­pants evac­u­ate, a sequence Farha­di shoots in one swivel­ing, hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing shot, end­ing with a close-up of a sin­gle win­dow pane rup­tured by a crack.

From that por­ten­tous sal­vo, Farha­di crafts his tale like a 1960s nov­el­ist: A now-dis­placed young cou­ple, Emad (Sha­hab Hos­sei­ni) and Rana (Taraneh Ali­doosti), set­tle on an apart­ment still filled with the pos­ses­sions of the pre­vi­ous ten­ant, a loose” woman who had clients.” They’re also both rehears­ing a the­ater-troupe per­for­mance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Sales­man, which imme­di­ate­ly posi­tions them as mod­ern pro­gres­sives, like most of Farhadi’s pro­tag­o­nists, tol­er­ant­ly endur­ing Iran’s repres­sive rules as they would the weath­er (Rana plays Lin­da Loman in a Shari­ah-law-man­dat­ed wig).

But the out­side world can­not be ignored. While Emad is not home, Rana mis­tak­en­ly leaves the apart­ment door open, and is assault­ed — off-cam­era. We nev­er see the inci­dent itself, just as in A Sep­a­ra­tion we nev­er see the piv­otal moment of man-woman con­tact that sets fire to the whole sto­ry. All we see is blood on the steps out­side, and Rana when Emad finds her in the ER: blood­ied, semi-con­scious, and hav­ing her scalp sutured.

The mys­tery of what exact­ly hap­pened (Rana is cagey with details) cre­ates a space of infi­nite hor­ri­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties, for Emad and us. And the fact that Rana left the door open boomerangs the respon­si­bil­i­ty and pub­lic humil­i­a­tion back onto her (first intro­duced as bright and con­fi­dent, she’s under a cloud of shame and trau­ma for the rest of the film). Was it a client” of the old ten­ant? Jeop­ar­diz­ing her own hon­or puts Rana in dan­ger of being clas­si­fied as that kind of woman. 

Emad must strug­gle to rec­ti­fy his family’s hon­or and turns detec­tive, sleuthing out the own­er of a set of dropped keys and, in the last act, hav­ing to con­front his own tra­di­tion­al­ist impuls­es. He goes too far, of course, return­ing to the con­demned build­ing with its cracked walls and cor­ner­ing the cul­prit, but typ­i­cal­ly for Farha­di, the truth in this high­ly Manichean cul­ture is far from sim­ple — it is in fact a knot of moral ambi­gu­i­ties. Using Miller’s play as a kind of coun­ter­point — an echo from the abyss between real­i­ty and our ide­al­iza­tions about life—The Sales­man is dense­ly lay­ered with social cri­tique. You can watch Farhadi’s films just for their emo­tion­al torque, which is intense, but there are always sig­nif­i­cances right under the skin. In an ear­ly scene inside a crowd­ed taxi, a female pas­sen­ger makes every­one move around, but Farha­di keeps her provoca­tive­ly off-frame. Even this pass­ing moment sug­gests reams about the culture’s ingrained misog­y­ny and mas­cu­line anx­i­ety. (Unlike oth­er films about male vengeance run amok, the pathol­o­gy is not the husband’s, but his country’s.)

Farha­di deserves every award they can offer, if only for his four-dimen­sion­al con­cep­tion of char­ac­ter and his peer­less skill at mak­ing his nar­ra­tives seethe with ten­sion and express larg­er issues in the same instant. It’s almost Farha­di-esque that this most humane of artists is now on a black­list by virtue of his coun­try of ori­gin (and the fact that our fear­ful leader has no busi­ness inter­ests there). Farha­di has appar­ent­ly decid­ed to boy­cott the Oscars even if grant­ed spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion to trav­el. We can only hope he wins, and Skypes in a dil­ly of a speech.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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