The Salesman (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the hands of a lesser writer-director, “The Salesman” would likely to have ended up as yet another revenge-thriller with an expected catharsis in the end. An argument can be made that this picture is worth seeing exactly because it provides no release of emotions, but it is nonetheless worth thinking about and discussing long after the movie is over.
Writer-director Asghar Farhadi wishes to say something important about traumatic events. Although each incident may vary, I think he means to communicate that trauma is almost never an isolated event. It bleeds, it causes a flood, it takes over the lives of the people it touches. It is a stink that refuses to leave the room. It haunts us when we are alone, in our beds, when we are at our jobs, when we are sitting in the car and it is utterly silent on the outside but a raging storm in our heads. The material captures the brutality of trauma, how it cripples the body and the mind. And yet not once does the movie shows violence explicitly.
The plot revolves around Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher by day and an actor by night, who is compelled to find the man who attacked his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) in the apartment they recently moved into. Although Rana is relatively all right physically, Emad feels it is his duty as a husband to find answers. We observe him in their home, at school, and at the play before and after the incident. The differences are subtle but informative. We understand the character through his silence and action, not words. Hosseini communicates paragraphs with only his eyes. Alidoosti, meanwhile, matches him with her extremely telling body language.
The picture has an eye for realism. I admired how it takes its time to let scenes unfold—especially those that may not necessarily advance the plot. Notice the extended scene in which the couple moves into their new apartment. It would have been easier to show them having already moved in and simply putting various knickknacks away like in most mainstream American films. Here, we feel a sense of community because we see friends helping to carry a mattress up the stairs; we get a mental picture of the place as the camera goes in and out of rooms; we notice small things like how used their clothes look; we infer about the weather since all windows and doors are open. It captures the insanity, excitement, and exhaustion of move-in day.
I always say that in order for dramas to be effective, the setting must be believable. Here is a picture with such a trait and it is beautiful how the story is told through action but a whole lot more can be learned by looking at the environment of the characters. Because of their worn belongings and the fading colors of their clothing, I began to wonder whether this is a couple that can withstand a horrifying, unfathomable, and ultimately devastating event. But, as in life, there is no certainty.
The Past (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Having not seen each other for four years, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) comes to pick up Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport. But it is not exactly a happy reunion. They have business to finalize and it involves making their divorce official so that Marie can legally marry her boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir has a young son (Elyes Aguis) and a wife who is in a coma. Marie’s daughter from another man, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), disapproves of the relationship because she is convinced she knows a certain truth about how and why Samir’s wife has ended up in her current state.
There is a great movie hidden inside “The Past,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, but it is nowhere in sight during the first hour. While part of the mystery involves a subtle shift in perspective, much of the exposition and rising action are just above standard marriage drama material that is occasionally interesting because there the plot proves fluid. Just when one expects that the screenplay has settled and is ready to explore its current track, it gets derailed and the subject is an entirely different beast.
Such an approach is not always effective. Part of the problem is this: just when the material is about hit on a particular insight about Marie’s relationship with the two men, it moves on and so we are deprived of the intricacies of human drama. It is a shame because Ahmad, Samir, and Marie are all hurting in some way. They tend to hang onto delusions and hope that when enough time passes, somehow the problems will be less severe or end up working themselves out. This breeds a lot of frustration inside them. Notice how Marie and Samir deal with the children when they do something wrong. It is as if some of the words the parents use to chastise their children are supposed to be aimed at themselves.
I enjoyed how the kids are written. Instead of functioning as mere background characters or relying on cute, it shows that they are capable of real thoughts. They hear the ugly fights between the adults. Afterwards, they think about the words thrown around. The scene involving Fouad talking about a machine keeping his mother alive has real gravity. He seems to have a lot of anger and a part of it is a lack of closure. We get the sense that neither Marie nor Samir has really talked to him about what being in a coma means and what it might entail.
The drama comes into focus—finally—during the latter half where the search for the truth is vigorous and intense. No easy answer or solution is offered. The closer we look at the characters, their exhaustion is all the more apparent. At some point I wondered if they even really cared about the truth anymore. Did they just want to fight because it is a state they have gotten accustomed to? Is it the easier alternative? But then the camera focuses on Samir and the way he deals with the information that faces him. The final scene is memorable but it is without a shadow of doubt that it could have been a lot more meaningful if the rest of the picture had been as astutely written and executed.
Despite a handful of highly engaging scenes, “Le passé” still feels too long. This can be attributed to the tease that is the first half, peeling off layers and getting us to think it will move forward a certain way only to dispose of it. It gets exhausting—and annoying—after a while and so when the strong second half comes around we spend some our time and energy being doubtful instead of fully engrossed.
A Separation (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Together for fourteen years, Simin (Leila Hatami) filed a divorce against Nader (Peyman Moadi) because she was convinced that their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), could have better future abroad. Nader, adamant that Termeh could flourish in Iran, wouldn’t sign the papers and the judge believed that Simin’s reason for getting a divorce was simply not an irreconcilable difference. Simin moved back to her mother’s house which meant Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), inflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, needed a new caretaker. Recommended by Simin’s friend, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), with child for four months, was hired last-minute by the desperate Nader, a decision that proved to be more trouble than what he bargained for. “A Separation,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, captured human drama at its finest because the filmmakers were able to present conflict as is, from the beauty and ugliness of strong relationships to the uncertainty of new ones, without using a typical dramatic parabola as a crutch to make the material more digestible. From its opening scene, the screenplay bristled with implications. For instance, the husband and wife faced the camera, the judge, as they tried to convince him that their respective side was right. Although we heard the judge’s voice, not once did we have a chance to lay eyes on him. In other words, the writer-director forced us to take the role of the arbiter, trusting us that we were capable of listening, wise enough to be aware that each side had their share of truths and inaccuracies, and consider that perhaps it was too soon to submit a final evaluation of what scant information we’ve been handed. Its opening scene was so important in setting the tone and level of intelligence of the rest of the picture, every time an important event occurred, I found myself looking back at Simin and Nader’s faces as they tried to communicate their sadness and anger while grappling with the fact that they still cared for one another. I admired that the spouses were not caricatures in that they were constantly out to get each other and readily available for yet another irritating screaming match just because one thing did not go his or her way. It was easy to feel that a divorce did not simply mean a chance to erase what they had. These were smart and sensitive adults with real values and principles. We may not always understand or agree where they were coming from, but that was a part of the film’s theme: the attempt to put oneself in another person’s shoes and how tragic it can be for us, as well as for those closest to us, if we choose to treat or think of others like they are less than. Ultimately, despite verbal exchanges so full of rage and vitriol, the film was an advocate of peace: peace in terms of our relationship with those who are strangers to us, with people we learned to care about, and, perhaps more importantly, peace in our own minds. Can we truly lead a happy life without peace of mind? Have you ever had a day when you constantly found yourself looking over your shoulder? I did, for about six months, and it was such a dark period in my life, I considered several escape routes that scared me to the bone. Even now, just thinking about it, I remain grateful to have persisted. If there was anything I learned from that experience, it was that having and enjoying a peace of mind is a state so evanescent, keeping it requires hard work. “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin” posed big questions by focusing on two small families, but it offered no convenient answer. Even through the credits, I found my ears begging to hear one. Like its knack toward delivering suspense but avoiding cheap thrills, there was not a cheap answer here. What we get from the experience is equal to what we put into it.