Now Playing at the Old Greenbelt Theatre.
My favorite award category—Best Foreign-Language Film—thankfully comes in the first hour of the Oscars. Indeed, many beloved foreign-language films—Incendies, Amelie, The Lives of Others—were originally Oscar winners or nominees, because an Oscar nod usually guarantees wider distribution in this country. An added bonus is that a foreign director sometimes will enjoy follow-on success in the United States; for example, Denis Villeneuve, the director of Incendies, made Sicario and Arrival, a 2017 Best Picture nominee.
This year’s Best Foreign-Language Film, The Salesman, will join my list of foreign-language favorites, but its Iranian director and second-time Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi, may not be coming to the United States any time soon. Instead, he boycotted the Academy Awards ceremony to protest the Trump administration’s seven-nation immigration ban. Nevertheless, his spare, elegant film is making the rounds.
The Salesman presents a play—Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—within a film about a complicated middle-class marriage. The pairing initially seems odd—how does Miller’s quintessentially American drama, although performed in Farsi with hijab-wearing female cast members, relate to the lives of contemporary Iranians? Does Iran even permit public performances of secular American works? Internet research confirms that Iran allows performances of plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene Ionesco, although the censors may redact the texts.
Emad is the hip high-school English teacher who enjoys an effortless rapport with his teenage (male) students and teaches them critical thinking using an Iranian classic short story about a man who figuratively becomes a cow. When a student asks how a man changes into a cow, Emad responds, “Only gradually.” In the evening, Emad and his wife Rana rehearse an amateur production of Miller’s play. Later that night, the couple must evacuate their apartment building after an earthquake renders it structurally unsound, and they are desperately searching for new housing, not easy in crowded Tehran. From this simple circumstance, Farhadi’s psychological thriller unspools.
A cast mate tells Emad about an available apartment in the building he owns, and the couple gratefully relocate, although the place appears slightly fishy, with a locked room containing the previous tenant’s stuff. After the next night’s rehearsal, the censors, still unhappy with the text, delay Emad at the theater. When he returns home, he finds Rana missing and blood on the floor.
During Emad’s absence, Rana was sexually assaulted and badly beaten in the new apartment, and the couple gradually unspools after this event. Shame-ridden Rana retreats within herself, and cool Emad gradually devolves into a primal male avenging the insult to manhood. He brutalizes his wife, fellow cast members, and students in his pursuit of a fantastical goal—revenge—and resembles Willy Loman, the protagonist of Miller’s play. Farhadi uses the play to great effect when Emad and Rana perform the play and act out their inner trauma, as the film progresses to its dramatic denouement.
Check the theater website for information about movie times and online tickets: The Salesman alternates with I Am Not Your Negro. Accessibility information: No OC showings, but this foreign language film has subtitles. All showings with CC and descriptive audio.