Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s Master of the Ordinary, Wins a 2nd Oscar
For Iranians, Asghar Farhadi, whose movie The Salesman won the Academy Award for best foreign language film on Sunday, is more than just a filmmaker.
In a country where the state-controlled news media generally overlooks the stresses and strains of a normal middle-class existencee, Farhardi — who refused to attend the Oscars ceremony to protest President Trump’s targeted travel ban — is one of the few to describe daily life.
“He tells the story of the middle class,” said Reza Haeri, a documentary-maker. “Farhadi speaks their language. He focuses on tensions that his audience can also experience in their everyday lives. That is why he has a huge following in Iran.”
The award on Sunday was not Farhadi’s first, as he also won best foreign language film in 2012, for A Separation. That places him in the company of renowned foreign directors like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Ingmar Bergman.
For many of the Iranian director’s fans, the award was a source of pride: Iran mostly makes the news outside the country for missile tests or for orchestrated anti-Western rallies, they point out.
At the heart of Farhadi’s films are the social struggles that many urban Iranians face daily: divorce, migration, domestic violence and the small but destructive lies that are needed to maneuver between a modernizing society and restrictive, ideological rules and regulations frozen in time.
The Salesman, which features two of Iran’s most prominent actors, Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini, tells a simple but gripping tale about a couple, both amateur actors, that moves into an apartment previously occupied by a single mother, leaving behind evidence of a mysterious life — perhaps as a prostitute.
In a brilliant interplay with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which the couple is performing in as the film unfolds, they find their lives thrown into turmoil after the woman is assaulted while in the shower, in a case of mistaken identity. It is a tale, as A. O. Scott said in his review in The New York Times, “about trust and honor, about violence against women in a patriarchal society, about the woe that is in marriage, but it is also about death, a salesman and the hidden brutality of class.”
But it is Farhadi’s eye for detail and respectful storytelling that make him such a powerful champion of millions of Iranians who feel that the state-controlled news media completely ignores the reality of their lives and problems.
“There is simply no comparison between state television and Farhadi,” said Saba Motmaen, a 26-year-old administrator at an advertising company. “They leave out all sorts of aspects of our lives, while he makes me feel close to his films. His movies are realistic and believable.”
At the same time, Farhadi is often criticized by Iranian hard-liners, who say that his films paint an unjustifiably dark picture of the Islamic republic and that his work is overrated by Hollywood.
“The Oscars are tainted by politics,” said one critic, Hamidreza Ayoubi, a retired staff member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who owns a publishing house. “Some of his movies are O.K., but not worthy of prizes. He is part of a postcolonial show, promoting Hollywood culture.”
Like his audience, Farhadi mostly steers clear of politics — dangerous ground in Iran. But his international acclaim is increasingly thrusting him into the role of spokesman for Iranians who are caught between the rigid ideology of the state and Western governments that isolate the country with sanctions — and, now, for the Trump administration’s travel ban for the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.
Farhadi does so in subtle ways, mastered by those in Iran who want to criticize, but not so harshly as to be silenced by censors.
Farhadi and the two stars of The Salesman decided not to attend the Oscars on Sunday, “out of respect” for their fellow Iranians, the director said in January. In an acceptance speech delivered for him by the Iranian-American entrepreneur and space explorer Anousheh Ansari, Farhadi said that “dividing the world into categories of ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ creates fear.” He also called the travel ban “inhumane” and called for “empathy.”
“President Trump and those who don’t like Farhadi inside Iran will be angry with him,” Ali Sharif, a 43-year-old salesman, said in an interview in Tehran. “He spoke out against the travel ban, something Trump doesn’t like. And he placed a successful Iranian woman on the world stage who lives in America and doesn’t wear a scarf. That will make our hard-liners upset.”
In a statement given to The Times in January, Farhadi spoke out against “hard-liners” in both the United States and Iran. Reached on Monday, he was obviously overjoyed at the news of his new Oscar but did not provide any further comment.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a member of President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government, posted a congratulatory message on Twitter, saying that Iranians “have represented culture and civilization for millennia.”
And the director’s triumph, of course, thrilled his audience at home. “I get happy over anything that makes Iran look good internationally,” Motmaen said. “Farhadi makes us looks like everybody else, like normal.”
NY Times 2/27