Only a handful of Americans – outside of a small but dedicated circle of cinema aficionados – have ever heard of Asghar Farhadi. I learned about him quite by accident.
In searching for foreign films to add to our Netflix queue, a 2011 Iranian movie, “A Separation,” sparked my interest. The blurb announced that the film centers on a middle-class couple’s marital tensions, provoked by the husband’s desire to remain in Tehran to take care of his elderly and demented father while his wife insists that they leave the country to provide a better life for their 11-year-old daughter.
My wife, Sandy, and I found ourselves totally immersed in this drama, which details the ways in which three generations of a family are torn apart after being subjected to unexpected external stress.
So I looked for other works by the same director and screenwriter, who turned out to be Asghar Farhadi.
The second Farhadi film that we chose to view was his 2016 “The Salesman,” which takes its title from the play within the film, “Death of a Salesman,” by the highly respected American playwright Arthur Miller.
In an interview included on the DVD of “The Salesman,” Farhadi reveals that he wanted to bring the play into his film so that he could explore the complex interrelationships between actors on the stage, actors in film and the “real” lives that they live beyond the gaze of a paying audience.
As with “A Separation,” “The Salesman” explores the dynamics of a disintegrating middle-class marriage. In the aforementioned interview, Farhadi explains that as a filmmaker, he is drawn to the experience of married couples who, on the surface, seem to be working through their difficulties, but then the stress of unforeseen events pushes them over the edge.
Farhadi uses the image of throwing a stone into the calm water of a pond and watching the resultant ripples spread out, perhaps in unpredictable ways. In “The Salesman,” the stone thrown into the pond is this: having been forced out of their apartment, because the building is in immediate danger of collapse, a young couple relocates to a space whose previous tenant was
a prostitute. This prostitute “haunts” them in profoundly disturbing ways.
But in both “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” Farhadi is not content to stop at domestic drama; through evolving complications of character and plot, he compels his viewers to ponder age-old questions on the balance between justice and mercy: When does justice devolve into vengeance? When does mercy descend into a betrayal of justice?
A significant aspect of Farhadi’s genius is that at the end of both movies, he leaves his viewers in a state of disturbed but exhilarated moral ambivalence – not knowing what to think or how to feel.
Yet another dimension of Farhadi’s cinematic art is his implied criticism of the more rigid aspects of Iranian society, on both cultural and political levels. In his Jan. 22, 2017, article in The New Yorker, film critic Antony Lane comments on Farhadi’s ability to be critical with impunity, to develop seemingly inoffensive stratagems to avoid official censorship.
With regard to “The Salesman,” Lane writes, “We don’t see a single cop, let alone a lawyer or a cleric, yet by their very absence we sense their clamp on society: a clever move by Farhadi, who shows nothing that could vex Iranian censors but whose intent is nonetheless caustic and precise.”
What I find remarkable and inspiring in Farhadi’s films is that his portrayal of middle-class domestic life in Tehran is instantly recognizable. Though women are in head scarves and street signs are in Farsi, kitchens are well-stocked and filled with gadgets, high school students are armed with picture-taking cellphones, and men and women are struggling to make a living, to do what’s best for their kids. The people we observe in Farhadi’s films are clearly not their government; they are us.
As the movie critic Roger Ebert put it, “Farhadi tells his story with a fair and even hand. His only agenda seems to be to express empathy.”
I suppose it is Farhadi’s ability to spark a profound empathy in those who see his films that has drawn so many to his work.
It was only after we had seen both “A Separation” and “The Salesman” that Sandy and I found out that each film had won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Obviously, we are not the only ones to have been deeply stirred by Farhadi’s work.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.