The Salesman (2016) begins on a stage set as a technician adjusts the lighting. We see a kitchen and a bedroom, and we later discover that this is the stage on which the film’s main characters, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), will perform in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. As the camera leaves the stage for the outside world – the other stage on which Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s characters will perform – the first words we hear are “Get out! The building’s collapsing!” Emad and Rana are suddenly forced to evacuate their Tehran apartment when nearby excavation destabilises the foundations. When they come to collect their belongings later, we see the massive cracks in the plaster above their bed: a warning of the marital crisis to come.
Farhadi regularly represents the home as a pressure cooker of marital conflict, and these constrained, geometric, labyrinthine home spaces, in turn, become a microcosm for modern Iranian society. The award-winning director has an MA in Stage Direction from the University of Tehran, and his theatre background is apparent throughout his oeuvre. His screen space reveals the relationships between his characters, and the social and psychological substance of his films suggests an artist who is enamoured and experienced with the language of the stage. There may even be a hint of Ibsen here, who so often in his plays imagined domesticity as a cage.
Domestic displeasure persists in Fireworks Wednesday, which pointedly probes the simmering tensions of married life. Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young, working-class woman, takes a job as a cleaner for a middle class family. Mojdeh (Hadieh Tehrani) suspects her husband, Morteza (Hamid Farrokhnezhad), is having an affair with Simin (Pantea Bahram), the divorcée next door. Rouhi has taken the job to help finance her forthcoming wedding, but steps into a situation she couldn’t have anticipated. Arguments between husband and wife are emotionally violent; Mojdeh listens at the bathroom wall, hoping to catch Morteza through the plaster. Despite its spacious luxury, the home is a site for surveillance, and Farhadi repeatedly shifts our allegiances within it.
Domestic settings also allow Farhadi to condense action, putting his characters’ behaviour under a microscope. His films are, at heart, profound character studies – designed like an onion, slowly peeled, to reveal a character’s truth. The characters are always withholding something; truths emerge gradually, with quietly devastating consequences. In a Farhadi film, complex questions about the nature of personal and social responsibility are raised without easy solutions.
These tendencies are explicit in About Elly, a film permeated by a sense of constant unease. A group of friends (three married couples, two singles, plus assorted children) takes a holiday at the Caspian Sea where their relationships combust after one of their group, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), disappears. A tangle of deception unravels in the aftermath. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has organised the trip; but everything is not as it seems, and little lies birth bigger, more devastating ones. Taking his tonal cues from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Farhani creates a landscape in which every action, however trifling, has consequences. Sepideh’s motives are questioned, yet she has reasons for her actions within a cultural context; the men around her initially appear intolerable, but are revealed to be more complex.
Similarly, in The Past, every character’s perspective carries moral weight. When Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo), he finds her involved with Samir (Tahar Rahim). As he tells Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), it is difficult for him to face the man who will marry his ex. As the trio circle around each other, mostly, within the space of the house, Farhadi drips information into the narrative. He also suggests a failure of communication – repeating a shot in which he has characters speak to each other, but doesn’t let us hear what they say. Important parts of the story might be denied us, but Farhadi understands that when it comes to other people’s relationships, we can’t possibly ever know the whole truth.
Viewed together, Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), The Past (2013), and The Salesman, are primers of sorts on love and marriage in modern Iran. These films are peopled with well-educated, sophisticated Iranians, predominantly of the middle and upper classes. They are liberal minded, but living within a religious, patriarchal system that continues to curtail their freedoms, often in ways they unconsciously absorb and perpetuate. In each of these films there is discord like divorce, or the desire to escape. Female rebellion is frequent, and the working class characters, like Näima (Sabrina Ouazani) in The Past, and Razieh (Sareh Bayat) in A Separation, expose these already fragile fault lines to even greater pressure.
Farhadi’s films don’t only offer a window on gender and class politics, but also on the human condition more broadly. Like all the great Iranian filmmakers who have come before him – Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi – Farhadi is a humanist. There are no cartoonish villains. In fact no character, male or female, is all bad or all good. While his films raise moral questions, he doesn’t judge his characters or their choices, or strive to explain the veiled mysteries of Iranian society to Western audiences.
Farhadi makes cinematic space for audiences to think in. But more than that, he seems to want to implicate us in the story, as he does in the opening scene of his Oscar-winning film, A Separation. As Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) sit before a family court judge, we adopt his position, listening to each of their ‘cases’ for and against divorcing. Similarly, The Past’s final, ambiguous shot makes us active in the story – we see what we want to see.
Closure in a Farhadi film is rarely of the conventional variety. Certainties are few – characters make mistakes, but they are fundamentally decent, striving for happiness. Sometimes a clean cut is best; as Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) explains in About Elly of his own failed marriage, “A bitter ending is better than endless bitterness.”