Iranian director Asghar Farhadi explores big themes in Oscar-nominated drama The Salesman: dignity, empathy, humiliation

A home invasion turns film’s story about an acting couple into an exploration of the nature of relationships, revealing truths its director believes people everywhere can relate to

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 12:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 12:39pm

It’s been a tumultuous winter for Asghar Farhadi. Less than a week after he was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film for his remarkable new drama, The Salesman, the Iranian director announced he would boycott the awards ceremony as a protest against US President Donald Trump’s temporary immigration ban, which affects travellers coming from seven predominantly Muslim nations, including Iran.

The Salesman is a deceptively simple picture about two young actors, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are preparing to star in a new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Their lives are turned upside down one night when a man breaks into their apartment while Rana is there alone.

Farhadi, who won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2012 for A Separation, spoke about The Salesman just before the controversy blew up.

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The Salesman mixes two apparently heterogeneous elements. First there’s the intimate story of a relationship in crisis, a theme that runs through much of your work. Then there’s the theatre angle. Where did the story come from?

Twenty years ago I was studying theatre and I imagined that I would spend the rest of my life in theatre. I came to the cinema, but this wish to go back to the theatre has always remained with me. … On the other hand, I had a story of a couple where one night an intruder enters their home, but I felt the story was incomplete. Last year I had the notion of making this couple actors and so my wish to do theatre came true in a way.

Even though Rana isn’t actually hurt, Emad changes after the incident. He seeks revenge against the intruder, while at home he can barely look at his wife.

And he can no longer really be an actor.

How are the two related?

When we say someone is an actor, it means they can put themselves in another’s place, and in my story … Emad can no longer … put himself in another’s shoes and understand him. He can no longer empathise with another person such as [the intruder].

He feels humiliated by the intrusion even though he wasn’t home when it happened. And the humiliation kills his empathy?

Yes, he can no longer even look ... his own wife in the face. His gaze is turned only towards himself. And when he’s thinking about punishing [the intruder], he’s really thinking of himself and his own humiliation, not his wife or her pain.

So she has no agency? He only sees her as a piece of property that’s been damaged?

Yes. He acts as if his own dignity, his own property has been attacked. His wife exists for him … only as an extension of himself.

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Do you think this dynamic is a constant across cultures or only exists in certain paternalistic ones?

No, I think it’s a constant everywhere in the world. It’s part of the human condition. The thing we make the focus of our love we feel belongs to us. Love and the sense of property always seem connected with each other.

Is there an alternative?

There’s this sentence I read by [German psychoanalyst] Erich Fromm: “Love is the child of freedom.” Which means that true love is to love something that does not belong to you, that you cannot hold, but that you continue to love.

It sounds very idealistic.

It resembles the relationship that religious people have with God. Religious may not be the best word. I mean people who have faith. They don’t feel as if they own God. They feel that God owns them, but they love God.

Speaking of love, I’ve noticed that men and women in Iranian films never touch. Even married couples. We never see them hug or hold hands, much less kiss.

That is part of our censorship laws. But love in general isn’t a very touchy thing in our culture. We express love through language and poetry.

So where in all of this does Death of a Salesman fit? It seems such a quintessentially American play. Why did you use it?

I read a great number of plays and I felt this one perfectly mirrors my main story. The principal theme in Death of a Salesman is humiliation. Willy Loman experiences humiliation at the hands of his son, society, his workplace, his family. That’s why he kills himself. Here, too, my character Emad feels just as reduced by his humiliation.