Although he has a substantial résumé, it took A Separation to put Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi on the international map. It’s one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen. The Past confirmed his skill as a storyteller. His latest effort, The Salesman, has just been nominated for an Academy Award and the honor is well-deserved. Farhadi has the rare ability to take seemingly ordinary situations and build a web of intrigue and suspense around them.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a married couple who work with a local theater group in Tehran. One day, without warning, their apartment building collapses and they must find a new place to live. A colleague provides the answer, but neglects to tell them about the woman who formerly occupied the apartment. I don’t know the expression for “bad karma” in Farsi, but that’s what permeates their new living quarters. One night Rana is attacked while taking a shower, which leads to a domino-like sequence of unpredictable events.
Farhadi explores the dark side of his culture, especially as it relates to male pride and the consequences of taking revenge. You never know where the story is headed or if it is going to explode like a powder keg, but the sense of discomfort he creates is acute at every turn. This is Farhadi’s specialty, and while The Salesman never quite soars it holds us in its grip from start to finish. It leaves us with much food for thought and the lingering question, “What would I do in a situation like this?”
Like the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Farhadi shoots his films in documentary-like fashion, making us believe his actors aren’t playing characters at all but going about their business as if a camera wasn’t present. It’s a formidable achievement for a man who has proven himself a keen-eyed observer of human nature. No wonder his films have universal appeal, even though they are imbued with the specifics of life in Iran.