Until last week, only three directors had won a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award more than once: Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio De Sica, all of whom easily rank among the all-time great filmmakers. The fourth director to join that exclusive club is Iran's Asghar Farhadi, who won his second Oscar in that category for The Salesman. Farhadi's A Separation won the award in 2012.
The director chose not to attend this year's Oscars (though he knew an historic award was possible) to protest the U.S. ban on travelers from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. But he made a fascinating choice for who would accept his award and explain his absence to the world.
Speaking for Farhadi were two Iranian-Americans, former NASA scientist Firouz Naderi and tech executive Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space and first female space tourist. The message sent by their presence appeared almost whimsical — that national borders disappear with benefit of the literally global perspective from space. That interpretation might seem a stretch if associated with any filmmaker other than Farhadi, but empathy and respect for perspectives other than one's own are the subjects of virtually all the director's work.
There are no good or bad characters in Farhadi's films, just deeply conflicted humans faced with the complex moral dilemmas of everyday life. The Salesman tells the story of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a middle-class couple forced to move when their Tehran apartment building almost collapses due to the constant redevelopment of the city.
Emad teaches literature to high school students, and he and Rana star in a community theater production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Their lives are disrupted when Rana suffers a violent assault at the hands of someone who may be connected to the previous tenant of their new temporary apartment.
Remarkably, that is the starting point for a suspense thriller that generates levels of tension and dread high enough to recall the late-career work of Alfred Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock satirizes American culture, Farhadi explores universal human struggles in the context of a rapidly changing Iran, a place where fundamentalist views of the world now clash with unstoppable forces of modernization.
Like other films written and directed by Farhadi and set in modern-day Iran, The Salesman illuminates little-seen connections between their world and ours. With its 9 million residents, inadequate housing, rapid change and vibrant cultural life, Farhadi's Tehran is not so different from New York City (or New Orleans). Portraiture of this caliber allows Farhadi to embed social commentary deep within his otherwise highly personal stories.
The Salesman has its flaws, mostly in areas peripheral to its central tale of obsession and possible revenge. The intended connections between Death of a Salesman and Farhadi's original story, for example, seem tenuous at best. But it all leads to a final half-hour of breathtaking originality and depth. The film takes us places we've never been and elicits mixed emotions we could not have foreseen, all in the name of increased understanding among people living in conflict. What's more award-worthy than that?