‘Sales’ Force: Asghar Farhadi’s crime tale blends theatre and off-stage drama

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Oscar-winning Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi confesses to getting a little homesick after making his 2013 film The Past in France. So he returned to Iran for The Salesman—a characteristically tightly woven drama, infused with his signature suspenseful buildup that unfolds amid class and gender conflicts in Iranian society.

But an immediate return to Iran wasn’t the original plan for the filmmaker, as The Salesman wasn’t initially pegged as his follow-up to his Paris-set feature starring Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim, playing a separated couple settling old scores. After The Past, Farhadi set his eyes on Spain as the locale for his next project. But in what he calls “an emotional decision,” his plans shifted rather significantly. While his untitled Spanish project with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz attached as co-leads is still in the works, the writer-director managed to put it aside after doing location research in Spain and eventually shot The Salesman first.

“It was [going to be] hard for me to be outside of my home for three more years,” Farhadi confides, joining me via video Skype last fall. “That's why I asked the producer and the actors if we can postpone it for after The Salesman. I [also] felt making two [back-to-back] movies outside of Iran was perhaps not the right decision for me.”

Six years after he won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Iran’s first) with his meticulously constructed, masterful familial drama A Separation, Farhadi is in the awards spotlight again with a potential second nomination on the horizon. When I interviewed him back in 2013 at the Telluride Film Festival, he acknowledged what that first Oscar meant for his career. “Now I know when I make films, there are people who are expecting to see them. This has made my work easier,” he admitted back then. It is indeed thanks to A Separation’s unprecedented critical acclaim and well-deserved success throughout the awards season that the filmmaker has been enjoying a newfound prominence in the U.S. ever since. Two of his earlier films—Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and About Elly (2009)—found recent distribution homes as part of this surge. His new Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group release, The Salesman, is now shortlisted in a group of nine foreign-language films vying for one of the five nomination slots. “I try to not think about it,” said the filmmaker about the then-fainter prospect of being in the Oscar conversation again (prior to the unveiling of the shortlist.) “I know it's going to be a very hectic period if it happens.”

Farhadi’s cinema has always been palpably marked by his love of and background in theatre and dramaturgy. But that linkage has perhaps never been stronger than it is in The Salesman. A noir-esque crime tale at its foundation, the film is bookended by light switches turning on and off, exposing and darkening Farhadi’s latest stage filled with characters pursuing information to unveil the truth. This time, it’s not just a metaphoric stage, however, as The Salesman mainly follows characters—Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) among them—who work in theatre and set out to stage a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Beyond the hat tip in the film’s title, The Salesman carries further traces of the play in its themes, philosophic sensibilities and even characters.

Farhadi says he always wanted to get back to doing stage work somehow, even though his films are already close to theatre in the way they depict real, everyday lives, with unseen forces that reside underneath and complicate them. He explains that in theatre, the character arcs expand and deepen the situation at hand. “Like the Russian dolls, you know? You open it, and there is another small one inside it.” Looking for a new way to engage with theatre onscreen, he decided he was more interested in melding “stage” and “cinema” together rather than adapting a play directly. “The [deeper The Salesman] goes through that, [the more vague] the border between theatre and real life becomes,” he notes. “For example, you are in an empty home in the last scene when the old man walks in. It seems like [you] are watching a theatre [stage.] When [the lights get turned off], it's like stage lights [going off]—like the fuse box at the beginning of the film that they turn on and off.”

In The Salesman, Emad and Rana find themselves in the midst of a life in turmoil, first symbolized by their Tehran apartment building shuddering and almost collapsing. After this incident, they are obliged to relocate to a new apartment, once occupied by a prostitute (although she is never named in that way in the film) who had left quite a few of her belongings behind. Soon enough, her baggage proves to be more than the possessions she refuses to collect, when Rana gets attacked by one of the former tenant’s possible ex-clients. We don’t get to meet this old man (and his family) until the film’s final act. Until then, we mostly follow Emad’s increasingly obsessive investigations, which he carries out with rage despite Rana’s protests, who prefers to put the unpleasant event behind her and move on.

“The story of this couple and the story of Death of a Salesman have a very direct connection,” says Farhadi, describing how he built his film with parallels to Miller’s play. “It was interesting for me that [Emad] is trying to play Willy Loman in the theatre and [in the end] he faces and confronts an Iranian version of Willy Loman. (I see that old couple as the Iranian version of Willy Loman and his wife Linda.) So if somebody had read the play, they already know these two characters [that appear] at the very end of my film.” Farhadi explains that in the earlier stages of inception, he had his film’s basic story down: It would be about a couple staging a play. But he didn’t at first know what play they would be doing. “I read lots of plays until I got to Death of a Salesman, which made me very excited. I thought it was like a mirror in front of my story. The theme of humiliation is very strong [in both.]”

Like most of Farhadi’s filmography, The Salesman dissects the various roles men and women play in Iranian society, and the resulting clashes and conflicts that emerge between sexes. There is an added weight here, however, given that we follow a man setting out to avenge his wife’s assault—an overtly masculine crime, implied to have been indirectly caused by another woman we don’t ever get to meet in the story. (Farhadi says this “avenging and protecting the honor of a woman” dimension has been loosely compared to Masoud Kimiai’s seminal 1969 film Qeysar by some people.) The way men and women relate to and interact with one another has been a fascination of his all along, all the way back to when he was a theatre student. And he gradually became more conscious of the fact that he liked this kind of writing. But he stresses that writing about the relationships of men and women is not his ultimate goal. He more sees it as a good excuse to enter the sphere of bigger issues. “I feel like this is a universal subject that everyone around the world can understand. But the point is, I don't categorize my characters in my films. I don't say for example this character does this because he's a man and this character does that because she's a woman. Everything that happens in the film is like a jigsaw puzzle: You [combine them] and they make the film together. And when you put all the jigsaw pieces together, they direct you to a theme. [In this film], the theme of humiliation is everywhere. It is in a taxi scene [early in the film] and in [another theatre scene later in the film.] I want the audience to put all of them together and understand the themes. Some of them [can be detected] very easily and others need more attention.”

I ask Farhadi whether he ever considered giving the female character we don’t get to meet a scene or two in the film, given her significant impact on the unfolding of the events. He says at the beginning, when he first wrote the treatment, the woman did appear in scenes along with her child. But after he read Death of a Salesman, he felt the woman that meets Willy Loman in the hotel room is almost the same as this former tenant character. Based on that resemblance, he decided to remove the character from the story (at least physically) and instead heightened two other protagonists: Sanam, who plays the woman in the hotel in Emad’s production of Death of a Salesman, and her child, who has a key, even pivotal scene with Emad and Rana. “It's true that we don't see the last tenant in the film, but through the character of Sanam we understand that character as well,” he explains.

The Salesman might understandably raise some eyebrows due to its moral ambiguity. As the truth gets revealed about the identity of Rana’s assailant in an oblique story structure where details get peeled away to expose the bare facts, the film creates a healthy dose of empathy for the character. That is not to say Farhadi blatantly sides with him. Instead, he purposefully keeps his personal feelings at bay and lets the audience be the ultimate deciders. “I try to have the audience empathize with all my characters in my films,” he states. “Usually, the audience likes to put themselves in the shoes of the good characters and they try to not put themselves in the place of the bad characters. And when I say bad, I mean people who do something wrong. But I’d like them to put themselves in their shoes, too. I don't judge the characters at all, but it doesn't mean that there is no judgment here. I leave this duty [of judging] to the audience. I know it is very hard for people to do that, because at the end of the day, the judgment he gets might not be precise.”

Despite Rana’s subdued reaction and sympathetic approach to her assailant, he doesn’t see her as a passive character at all. To Farhadi, she gets to make the most crucial decision at the end of the film, by sparing the man’s reputation. “It's the most important act that any character does in the film. And we have to remember, she is in shock. She has this wound inside that she needs to heal.”

This year’s Artist-in-Residence at the American Film Institute Conservatory, Farhadi says (repeating and clarifying comments during an AFI Q&A last fall) that he finds two kinds of cinemas most interesting. “One is driven by drama and suspense, the kind that Hitchcock makes,” he says. He defines the other kind as “real life” or “reality of life.” And he names Abbas Kiarostami, the peerless Iranian auteur who passed away last July, as the most important figure in that realm. “I like combining these two cinemas together. I like the kind of cinema that has drama, but is also very close to real life.” Farhadi reflects on the influence and effect Kiarostami (and his recent passing) had on him personally and as an artist. “He was one of the few people that was very unique—not just in cinema but in his personal life as well. When we were at a party or something, the way he was looking around his environment was very different from other people. A couple of weeks before he passed away, I went to his home to meet him,” he remembers. “I went there with a lady. As soon as we got there, he looked at her and said that her shawl was very beautiful. I thought to myself that all this time, I didn't look at her shawl at all. The news was very bitter to me, it was very sad. I was going to Paris the same night that I heard the news. I cancelled the trip and I stayed in Iran. I was in shock for a couple of days. I don't think just the Iranian cinema will [miss him.] The whole world of cinema will miss a huge figure.”