Whether The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi’s latest movie was deserving of its Academy Award this year – there has been much discourse amongst film critics that this is well off his best work – there is no doubt that he is one of the most important and brilliant film makers of today. The Salesman is his seventh cinema release. He is a director and writer to embrace. His first three films, Dancing in the Dust, released in 2003 about a man forced to take up work as a snake catcher to appease his jilted in-laws; Beautiful City, released the following year, a harrowing tale about a teenage boy facing the death sentence and his 2006 Fireworks Wednesday about a cleaner caught up in a domestic dispute were well received and won gongs but did not make an impact on the art-house circuit. If they had limited release in the UK I didn’t come across them – requiring a DVD player to fulfil my viewing desires. However, they all shared one thing in common, a visceral exploration of the complexities and contradictions of human relationships.
It was the result of seeing his remarkable break-through film, About Elly, released in 2009 which won lots of awards as well as being Iran’s first ever official entry for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award which roused my curiosity about this remarkable film maker. The film tells the story of the breakdown of relationships amongst a group of close friends who take a vacation including Elly, the au-pair to the lead female, Sepideh, played by the wonderfully telegenic and gifted actress Golshifteh Farahani. It all goes pear-shaped when Elly mysteriously disappears. Incidentally, Farahani is the female lead in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 delight, Paterson.
In 2011 Farhadi released A Separation, the first Iranian film to win an Oscar and numerous other gongs. It was nominated for a BAFTA – I voted for it – (Almodovar’s The Skin I live In won that year). This is a director who has never made a bad film. A Separation was a tough act to follow, being a genuine masterpiece – as was Elly in my and others’ views. In 2014 we got The Past, a difficult, challenging and awkward film that demanded of its audience to engage in the effect of our decisions on others. It was clear to anyone who knew his work that Farhadi is an exceptional voice. Time magazine puts him amongst the 100 most influential people on the planet. He is a cerebral film maker, uncompromising and, as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian says, ‘Intent on the unfashionable business of making morally serious films for adults.’ I cannot argue with that.
Now we have The Salesman, and with it Farhadi’s second Oscar. It certainly conforms to Bradshaw’s observation and as I said earlier, this film has been warmly received but there is a suspicion that the Academy members voted for it because he was prohibited from travelling to the US under Trump’s ban on Muslims from Iran entering the country and they wanted to make their point to the President. I still feel that The Salesman was a deserved winner although I haven’t seen all the nominated films yet. Perhaps the film is a little too self-aware and there are some rather cute and contrived plot devices – I won’t give them away – but non-the-less, it is still a powerful human drama and the juxtaposition of Arthur Miller’s play and the domestic events unfolding around the performers’ lives as well as some superbly deft comic moments make this another fabulous film. OK, so arguably not his best, but even a Farahadi average is greater than the best work of practically any other film-maker alive today.