The so-called Muslim ban made certain that the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony would have a reason to be political. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi announced that he would not attend. Although the ban has been stayed, it is not clear if Farhadi will change his mind and attend.

The Salesman

A Separation

The 44-year-old Iranian has been to the United States before. In 2012, his movie A Separation won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. This year, his movie, The Salesman, is nominated again for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

With A Separation, writer/director Asghar Farhadi has given us a universal tale of children, parents, and hard choices where—much like life—there are no happy endings. Family members have different needs and fulfilling them means sacrifices, but do we sacrifice the needs of the young for the old?

The story itself is simple but made complex by guilt. Nader (Payman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are an upper middle-class couple in Tehran with one daughter, the 11-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants her daughter to have the greater opportunities available in another country. Nader needs to care for his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). The father no longer recognizes his family, having sunk deep into the oblivion of dementia. Simin resolves to divorce, but her reasons for divorce cannot be justified under Iranian law.

Simin moves back with her parents and on her recommendation, Nader hires a poor, religious woman Razieh, to care for his father while he is at work. This has its complications as well. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) does not have her hot-tempered husband’s permission. Her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is badly in debt and although he is out of work, Razieh cannot leave her daughter with him and brings her to work. Razieh is a slight, nervous women, so honestly faithful and modest that she calls a priest to ask if it’s permissible to bathe the old man when he urinates on himself.

Arrangements are made for her husband to take a job, but his creditors have him jailed and Razieh returns to work. On that day, Nader’s father wanders out of the apartment, across a busy road. A panicked Razieh finds him, but takes measures that anger Nader and the confrontation between Nader and Razieh make this tragedy more complicated.

This is a human tragedy that has no borders or religion: a beloved adult, unlearning instead of learning. is on a mind-numbing slow march toward death. Farhadi doesn’t take sides and in translation we doubtlessly lose some of the subtle beauty of Farhadi’s script—the difference between Persian and Arabic. While we might miss the richness of the words, the nuanced performances under Farhadi’s direction give us universals of the human condition.

The religious might moralize and claim that if Nader and Simin had had faith in God, tragedy could have been averted, yet this does not seem to be Farhadi’s aim or at least the film isn’t blatantly moralizing.

The Salesman is also about a couple whose marriage is put in crisis. The title refers to an American classic, Death of a Salesman.

To understand this movie, you need to be familiar with an Iranian classic tale which became an influential film. The 1969 film, The Cow, was reportedly admired by the influential Ayatollah Khomeini and, as a result, the Iranian film industry was allowed to continue under the Iranian Islamic Revolution. 

The movie, considered the first of the Iranian New Wave, went on to play at the Berlin Film Festival in 1972 and the Chicago International Film Festival in 1971. The movie is based on a play and a story by Gholam-Hossein Saedi who also wrote the script for the movie.

The Cow is about a middle-aged married man who owns the only cow in the village. With no children, he dotes on the cow, but more importantly, the cow gives him a certain status in the village. While he is away one day, the pregnant cow dies. The villagers attempt to cover up the bovine death, by telling the man the cow has escaped and run away. The man goes crazy and begins to believe that he is the cow.

The Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award-winning play Death of a Salesman will be more familiar to Americans. Unlike the cow owner, Willy Loman has children, Biff and Happy. Biff, the older son, was the golden boy, but after discovering his father’s infidelity, lost his admiration for his father and his ambition to continue in school, never graduating from high school. Happy is a dishonest man who can’t settle down but makes enough to loan money to his father. Haunted by the memory of his long-dead older brother who was a diamond tycoon, Willy is unable to believe that he and his sons will just be ordinary men and never rise to great success.

In the Iranian movie, The Salesman, a young couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are playing the lead roles of a small local production of Death of a Salesman. There are some considerations problematic under the more conservative Iranian culture: The hotel scene where Loman is revealed to be having a fling often shows the woman in a state of undress to make their relationship clear to Biff.

At home, in their modest apartment, the couple face another problem. The ground shifts and their building threatens to collapse. An ominous crack can be clearly seen. Yet fortune seems to smile on them: Through one of their fellow actors, they find a spacious two-bedroom apartment at a price they can barely afford. If this were an American horror story, you’d know that something was wrong.

During the day, Emad is teaching a class; his students knows he is acting in the Miller play. The class is watching The Cow. The students wonder just how a man turns into a cow. Emad replies, slowly. And thus Emad begins his transformation.

Emad doesn’t actually turn into a cow. This isn’t a horror story. Instead, he becomes a beast. One night, Rana is alone in the apartment and taking a shower. The apartment’s buzzer sounds and, thinking it’s her husband, she buzzes him in and returns to the shower. We don’t see what happens, but we see the consequences. Rana is at the hospital, not totally willing to reveal the full details or file a police report. What we do know for sure is that the intruder wasn’t Emad, but a stranger who came looking for the former occupant, a prostitute. There was a struggle. Rana was injured on the head, requiring stitches. The intruder’s feet were cut by glass broken during the struggle.

Without a police report, Emad takes justice into his own hands and pursues an investigation and an eventual confrontation. This isn’t a typical revenge drama, the morality of life and death and revenge are given nuanced complexity that one doesn’t often find in other movies. Don’t expect to be shocked or satisfied. The more controversial French movie about rape and revenge, Elle, is more satisfying in a traditional sense although its protagonist is much less sympathetic and more enigmatic. (Elle isn’t nominated for a Best Film or Best Foreign Picture Award, but its actress, Isabelle Huppert, received a Best Actress nomination).

Together, The Salesman and A Separation are nuanced examinations of marriage under pressure. While revealing aspects unique to Iranian culture, the films also show more broadly how Iranians and Americans are essentially emotionally the same. Depending upon the Oscar results, The Salesman may or may not still be playing locally, but A Separation is currently available on Amazon Video ($2.99).