Thursday, February 09, 2017

'The Salesman' Leaves Me (Further) Sold That Iran's Asghar Farhadi is the World's Best Movie Director -- An Appreciation (with an assist from Brad Strauss, co-host of The Director's Club podcast)

Yesterday, I saw The Salesman, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi.

This is just the first week it is playing at Chicago area cinemas, and just a pair at that--Century Evanston (where I saw it) and Regal Webster Place--but it is officially a 2016 release, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to be awarded on February 26.

If I had seen it in 2016, I would have named it--on this year-end blog post--my second favorite film of the year, behind just Manchester by the Sea. When I make my list of the Best New Movies I Saw in 2017, I'm pretty sure it will rank high.

Farhadi's A Separation was my #1 new movie seen in 2012, though it was officially a 2011 release and won the Foreign Language Academy Award for that year. It's likely among my 10 favorite films produced in this century.

The Past, officially a 2013 release, was third on my list of the Best New Movies I Saw in 2014. (His films tend not to hit U.S., or at least Chicago, screens until the following year.)

Within the past week, I've also watched for the first time, Farhadi's 2009 About Elly, which I found terrific, and 2006's Fireworks Wednesday, which is also very good if not quite to the level of the writer/director's four films that would follow.

According to IMDB, Farhadi also directed two earlier feature-length films, 2003's Dancing in the Dust and 2004's Beautiful City; these are hard to find, and I have not seen either.

But based on what I have seen, including The Salesman--which chronicles a high school literature teacher acting in a local (presumably in Tehran) production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman along with his wife, whose privacy is violated within their new apartment, setting off a slow-boil whodunit--I would confidently call Asghar Farhadi the world's best movie director working today, at least per work that I have witnessed.

This needn't be a contest, nor my opinion meant to override the legacies of still-working legends like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, etc., nor disrespect brilliant younger directors such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson or anyone else.

And to be clear, this article is meant as an artistic appreciation, not a political screed, but at a time when the U.S. President is trying to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries--including Iran--I find it interesting that perhaps the finest practitioner of the world's most universal art form is indeed Iranian (and presumably Muslim).

(Just to note it, one of my other favorite film directors of the past dozen years or so is an Iranian-American, Ramin Bahrani.)

Though Farhadi could supposedly receive dispensation to attend the Academy Awards amid the Muslim ban--regardless of stays and other court decisions--the latest I've read is that he won't attend the ceremony.

This is a shame, especially as his movies have greatly abetted my insights into life in Iran and provide far more humane depictions of real people than most Hollywood movies. 

My friend, Brad Strauss, who has long run the monthly Sunday lunch gatherings of the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group, of which I am a member, concurs that "I can think of no contemporary director who is currently making films as consistently great as Farhadi," while capsulizing his mastery as such:
"He is wonderfully perceptive and humanistic in his development of characters. While not an overtly flashy filmmaker, the technical skill required to develop narratives with this level of complexity is considerable, as is his ability to constantly surprise in a medium that is so often predictable."
Strauss has recently begun co-hosting The Director's Club podcast--you can listen to episodes here (the latest being about Danny Boyle, with an exploration of Jacques Tati upcoming) and/or find it on iTunes--with another of my film Meetup group friends, so it seemed natural to glean his insights about Farhadi.

In fact, I believe Brad was my entrée into A Separation--which he calls "Farhadi's masterpiece, my favorite film of this decade [and] one of the most compelling dramas ever made"--and a champion of The Salesman since seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

His praise of About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday over a recent dinner was what prompted me to seek them out, and in noting similarities across the five Farhadi films we've both seen--a focus on middle class Iranians, the unhurried depiction of universally identifiable domesticity, explorations of discord, struggle, strife and often a rather chilling twist--I asked him if he considered Farhadi an "auteur":
"Without diving into the weeds and controversies of the auteur theory, I have no doubt he is one," Strauss opined. "Thematically, Farhadi is constantly building empathy and refuses to judge his characters. This allows us to see conflicts from multiple points of view. He is also, like [Stanley] Kubrick and [Robert] Altman, a genre jumper, but he does so subtly, never relinquishing his own style."
Although Brad, I and film lovers worldwide can find enjoyment in any well-made movie, including big budget Hollywood extravaganzas, we've come to rue the relative sparsity--or at least non-prominence--of character-driven cinema.

For simple-yet-compelling storytelling beyond the ubiquitous superhero movies, franchise films, sequels and "event movies" that even gifted directors like  Iñárritu (The Revenant), Villeneuve (Arrival), Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight series) and others seem obliged to make, one must often look to independent films and those originating from countries other than the United States.

Current Best Picture nominees like Manchester by the Sea (written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) provide exemplary arguments against the notion that America can't produce quality, intimate films devoid of spaceships and explosions. But neither has yet grossed more than $45 million at the U.S. Box Office, with the latter below $20 million.

Even Spotlight (directed by Tom McCarthy), which won the 2015 Best Picture Oscar, made only $45 million in domestic theaters, and Jim Jaramusch's current Paterson--which stars Adam Driver of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame and has a 96% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes--has spent the past month playing on exactly one Chicago area screen (at the Century on Clark St., which isn't very convenient for me).

Personally, I think the world--and especially the U.S.--would be a better, more empathetic place if more people saw a wider swath of movies.

I love Farhadi's focus on human stories, familial dilemmas, inner conflict, turmoil, illness, heartbreak, insecurity and other matters that are common to pretty much everyone, no matter where they live, who they pray to or how much money they have.

"World cinema is a wonderful way to explore different cultures, but they are always from the filmmaker's point of view. The takeaway with Farhadi is a universalism that allows us to completely relate, regardless of cultural differences," Strauss expanded, while adding:

"We also have to recognize the place that Iranian censorship plays in his and all Iranian filmmakers' work. Aside from The Past, which was filmed in France and able to deal with more frank subject matters, all his films had to be (sometimes reluctantly) state-approved. Farhadi gets around this by implying what he can't show and "smuggling" subversive messages in ways that great old time Hollywood directors used to get past the Hays code."

In The Salesman, the director of Death of a Salesman tells the cast that edits likely need to made at three points in Miller's legendary script in order to satisfy Iranian cultural norms and those who enforce them. Without wanting to give away any key plot points of the movie, I can't help but interpret this as Farhadi's way of telling his audience that aspects of his film may have been softened or excised due to possible censorship concerns.

With this perception likely heightened due to the theatrical production central to The Salesman, I also see Asghar Farhadi's films--especially in contrast to most mainstream cinema--as being more akin to great, contemplative theatrical dramas, such as those written by American masters like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. (The 44-year-old Farhadi was a Theater major with a Master's in Stage Direction, and got his professional start writing and directing Iranian theater. )

To this point, Brad notes, "Yes, one can draw connections to theater works that focus on familial or small group conflicts, but Farhadi adds cinematic elements missing from an otherwise great adaptation like Fences [an acclaimed play by August Wilson, and recently a movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington]."

Obviously, people choose to see certain films for any number of reasons, and miss out on most due to obliviousness, disinterest, lack of availability and/or a limited amount of time.

If you've taken the time to read this blog post, you're probably already aware of Asghar Farhadi and may well have seen at least A Separation. If so, The Salesman is similarly not to be missed, even if you must wait for it to hit Netflix, On-Demand or your local library. (About Elly is currently streaming on Netflix and you should be able to find The Past, A Separation and probably Fireworks Wednesday at any library worth its salt.)

But if you've opted to avoid Farhadi's excellent films, intentionally or not, due to a perceived aversion to the Persian language or Iranian subject matter--and I'm not condemning you, as I must admit to once having similar thoughts--I think it's even more important that you seek out his oeuvre, or at least a few of his movies.

Not only will you enjoy sensitive, insightful storytelling not readily found at your local cineplex--and will likely be surprised at how largely non-religious and modern Farhadi's work is--you'll undoubtedly encounter people, places, scenarios and feelings that are far more familiar than they are foreign.

In a recent interview with Elise Nakhnikian for Slant Magazine, Asghar Farhadi observed:
"The situations that characters are put into in these films are situations that could happen anywhere in the world. The look that I have onto the characters is a look of empathy—even the characters who are at fault. Perhaps this is something that people around the world like, when you can put yourself into the shoes of others. This is the most important thing to me."
Whatever one's political or social beliefs, a good movie is a great thing, no matter who made it. And if an enjoyable couple hours of entertainment can further our cultural understanding, that's even better.

Not everyone needs to agree, and we never will, but greater commonality can only enhance our conversations.

As Farhadi astutely notes in the Slant piece:

"I think my audience has realized now that it has to leave some time to think about the film after they see it. That people talk to each other, that it creates conversation and debate among people, even those that don't agree with the film."

So you well may contradict my premise that Asghar Farhadi is the best movie director working today. You may not even love, or even much like, his films. (Those  versed only in blockbusters may find them slow to unfold.)

But especially in this combative, polarized age, I believe it inarguably valuable to be aware of him and the work he is doing.

In Iran, where as he told Nakhnikian, "despite all the difficulties, I still prefer making films."

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