One of the five Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees, “The Salesman” is the latest film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the best foreign film oscar in 2011 for “A Separation”.
After having seen both films, I find Farhadi to be an exceptionally talented artist. He appears to be serving a personal vision that rejects stark ethical judgments of any kind. He is uncomfortable with moral judgments against society in general, or against individuals who find themselves trapped by circumstances into making a choice, from a set of imperfect ones, that inevitably lead to disappointment, or worse. But this vision is expressed with masterful cinematic skill; he succeeds in making the audience just as uncomfortable as he is.
Emad and Rana, a childless married couple in their late thirties, are both members of an amateur theatre troupe in Iran. Emad, however, also works as a local high school teacher. The troupe is about to put on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman in which Emad plays the title role, with Rana playing his wife. When the film opens, the couple is forced to evacuate their apartment because the building’s foundation is crumbling. A member of the troupe, Barak, lets them move into one of the apartments he owns. The former tenant, a young woman with a child, had just left hurriedly, leaving some of her property behind.
Returning from teaching one day, Emad is told by neighbors that Rana was taken to a hospital with a serious head injury. While she was bathing, a strange man came into the bathroom. She had mistakenly let the intruder in on the intercom, thinking it must be Emad. She remembers nothing about what happened, but thinks she hit her head on the bathtub.
The remainder of the film follows Emad’s desperate, relentless attempt to discover the identity of the intruder. While Rana agrees with him that the police would only be a waste of time – a view not contradicted by anyone else in the film – she becomes increasingly distraught by Emad’s behavior. He seems to view the incident as a personal attack on his manhood, and he fiercely rejects her efforts to restrain him, even as he shows great sensitivity to his wife during her recovery. He seems especially incensed by the fact that the intruder left a sum of money behind, as well as the keys to his pickup truck, when fleeing the building.
The search for the intruder generates much suspense. We anticipate with dread how Emad will react when he finds the man, especially since his rage is so completely sublimated. In a superb performance, Hosseini moves slowly, speaks with moderation and in a quiet tone. But his face is a dark blowtorch.
Farhadi shows the influence of earlier masters, especially Bergman, by telling the story primarily through face-to-face confrontation between the characters, or the avoidance of it. While he avoids staginess with frequent shifts in location – to the apartment, the theatre, the school and with street action – the camera always pulls us back to the faces of the actors. They usually show strain, despair and confusion; a nerve-wracking spectacle. Perhaps seeing that the audience needs a rest, he inserts a brief scene with the young child of one of the actors. A delightful boy, he brings the only smiles you’re likely to get.
Farhadi has us in his grip, but the dramatic resolution of the film is painful rather than uplifting. The last half hour of the film, when Emad tricks the intruder into revealing himself, results only in a sense of waste and needless tragedy. The film becomes more of an ordeal than an entertainment. The final scene, when Emad and Rana sit silently while being made up for that night’s performance, is grimly ironic. There will be no catharsis for them; the tragic mistakes we make in the real world, unlike the theater, leave only shame.
Be My Oswald
Just to catch up, I want to mention a very special event I recently attended. This was a special screening of Don Cato’s Be My Oswald, which hadn’t been shown commercially since its release in 2007. This violent, twisty dark comedy keeps you guessing right up until the end. While several actors are used in various New York locations, it is essentially a two-character piece on a single set. It tells of a troubled girl’s involvement with a psychotic woman who wants to assassinate Santa Claus at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It doesn’t matter that the target is just some bozo wearing a red suit; it’s a political act. They rent an apartment overlooking the parade, and will shoot him as his float passes by the window.
It has all the makings of a cult classic, and I’m surprised that it’s not better known. Jeannie Noth and Katha Cato are superb as the girl and the psychotic woman, respectively, and the writing and editing are top-notch. Don wrote the script himself, which was inspired by a little-known play. Don and Katha, who is his wife, introduced the film. Be My Oswald can be seen on youtube. I heartily recommend it.
Their current project, however, is the Queens World Film Festival, which they created. Now in its seventh year, it will be held from March 14th to the 19th at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The emphasis, as always, is on new filmmakers from all over the world, and the number of entries gets larger every year. Besides the films, it’s just a fun place to be, and I’m looking forward to it.
Go to www.queensworldfilmfestival.com for the schedule and tickets.
Partial List of Best for 2016
Since so many critics are weighing in on the past year for film, I’ll mention my top 3.
Third: Manchester by the Sea
The best American film I saw last year. Kenneth Lonergan has brilliantly structured an essentially downbeat story so that we stay fully involved for most of its length. I attribute this to its precise narrative time-shifts, which allow backstory information to be released slowly, through flashback. The involvement from completing the picture in our own minds is original and satisfying, especially since it distracts from the dreariness of the setting. Several moments strike like lightening bolts, especially the final meeting between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Lonergan is a true independent with growing confidence.
Second: The Handmaiden
South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook gives us a breakout classic that satisfies the mind and the eye with equal brilliance. With so much dazzling splendor to appreciate, the story could have been overwhelmed. But Park fashions a sly, breathtakingly erotic tale that makes a familiar good versus evil tale seem contemporary. A brilliant cast makes every jaw-dropping revelation seem perfectly logical and psychologically valid. A gorgeous achievement.
First: Toni Erdmann
A high-wire act to make us marvel. Could stand alongside Tootsie for social satire and flat out hilarity. Believe me, a nearly three hours length and German subtitles won’t matter a bit, you’ll want more. Peter Simonischeck and Sandra Huller make a father-daughter comedy team for the ages. Maren Ade took enormous risks, especially by making her heroine so unlikeable initially. Yet you never doubt the character’s transformation into a compassionate human being, however grudgingly achieved. Best seen in a real movie house, where the infectious laughter will pull you in.