Oh, the irony. When Asghar Farhadi won his first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2012 for A Separation, critics everywhere had been praising the social-realist director’s skillful setting of themes of universal humanism within the fundamentalist religious strictures that frame contemporary Iranian culture. The crisis afflicting the story’s central characters was triggered, and their ways of coping with it severely limited, by ancient rules of social order that had been reimposed after the 1979 Revolution. At the same time that viewers could empathize with the protagonists’ quandaries and emotional responses, we could also all-too-easily point fingers of blame at Shari’a law.
Five years later, the generations who remember a more Westernized Iran are aging, being replaced by younger people who know no other way than Islamic rule and whose main temptation toward modernism is the availability of electronic consumer gadgets. Tehran is still struggling with its awkward dual identity of a militant bastion of religious purity and a cosmopolitan city that does not wish to isolate itself entirely from such classic influences of other cultures as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Though a Western play like that may have to jump through censors’ hoops and get a few lines excised, there are still plenty of middle-class Iranians who will want to stage it or be in the audience.
But Americans don’t get to sit in the catbird seat feeling superior anymore – not since the 2016 election. The human challenges raised in Farhadi’s newest Academy Award-winner, The Salesman, particularly those involving masculine and feminine roles in society, suddenly seem to belong to Us as much as they do to Them. Issues of female body-shaming, sexual assault and the intrusiveness of the “male gaze” now seem to have as much to do with the role model set by the president of the US as they do with the tradition of the hijab. And Americans who want to impose censorship – whether it be by taking evolutionary theory out of elementary school textbooks, cutting funding to the National Endowment for the Arts or denying visas to filmmakers from countries that practice Islam – have become emboldened.
True, it was Farhadi’s own choice not to attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. His absence was a statement of political protest against Trump’s travel ban, not a matter of legal impossibility – not yet, anyway. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to realize that what happens to Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), the 30ish Tehrani couple at the center of The Salesman, could indeed happen here. Fundamentalism comes in many flavors. The question of who “owns” a woman’s body has been under debate since long before the birth of the Prophet – probably as far back as the Bronze Age, when matrilineality gave way to patrilineality as the dominant paradigm for inheritance. And themes of sexual violation, wounded honor and male vengeance for the desecration of their “property” are as deeply embedded in European literature as they are in that of the Middle East.
More layers of irony and subtlety play out in the gradual unfolding of this cinematic tale. We know that Rana has been interrupted in her shower by a mysterious intruder; we know that she has been injured, and that bloody footprints lead away from the scene of the crime. But we don’t know exactly what the stranger did to her. Emad cannot bear to ask her point-blank if she was sexually assaulted, only “Did anything happen?” (Whether that vagueness is more a manifestation of Iran’s policies about the explicitness of screenplays or of a lack of trust and intimacy between husband and wife is unclear.) Rana may not know the answer herself; she has suffered a concussion, and is so afflicted with PTSD that she can no longer bear to be alone in the couple’s apartment.
What we do know is that Rana adamantly does not wish to report the attack to the police. She says that she does not want to relive the incident; but here and elsewhere in the story, it is implicit that her reputation as a “modest” woman is at stake, with potentially disastrous consequences (not to mention that law enforcement authorities bring more trouble with them than justice). Western women who have seen the way rape victims are blamed in our own culture, particularly when they seek to prosecute their attackers, will grok the universality of her fears. Though we never meet the apartment’s previous tenant, a prostitute whose belongings still lurk inside a locked room, she represents a specter of shame that hovers over the lives of women – and not just in the Islamic world.
Ultimately, though, this is Emad’s story: an existential whodunit about a proud man who internalizes the crime that his wife wants to forget and becomes increasingly obsessed with identifying Rana’s attacker and exacting some humiliating retribution for this blot on the family honor. Hosseini’s acting is a marvel, exquisitely capturing the frustration and internal seething that Emad restrains behind a veneer of educated urbanity, expressed only in such brief spurts as when he improvises some hostile new dialogue while playing Willy Loman onstage. When it comes to the elemental conflicts in the battle of the sexes, this movie seems to say, the cultural context is necessarily not all that relevant. Men will hang onto their rage when women have moved on toward forgiveness.
You don’t need to accept that as a universal truism to get a lot out of The Salesman (which winds up its run this week at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, moving to the Woodstock venue on Friday, and may yet get a victory lap at other theaters, thanks to that little golden statuette). You do need to have a little patience, as the narrative pace bogs down somewhat in the middle act. For all Farhadi’s skill at building suspense, conveying clues drip by drop, the film could have been 15 or 20 minutes shorter. It’s not quite the masterpiece that A Separation was. But it’s masterful nonetheless. And it will prod you to think new thoughts about what, exactly, makes Western culture more “progressive” than the Islamic world.