The writer-director of The Salesman breaks new ground on old questions.
The Salesman opens on a theatre stage, dangling lights highlighting the artifice of the empty bedroom set. We then enter the real-life home of Rana and Emad; a home which, as it happens, is collapsing due to shoddy foundations and construction next door. In a virtuosic two-minute shot, we watch the married couple evacuate the building, glimpses of character coming through in their different responses to the calamity. It is a testament to writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s meticulous construction that these brief opening moments foreshadow the central drama of the film. Rana and Emad, we learn, are amateur actors playing Willy and Linda Loman in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. When, in their new apartment, Rana is attacked in the shower by an intruder (we do not see the event), the couple’s relationship begins to break down ‐ along with the boundaries between the stage and real life.
Fans of Farhadi’s work will recognize a familiar structure: a tragic event, shrouded in ambiguity, produces a rippling series of consequences that expose hidden truths about the relationships and society involved. (In About Elly, it was the drowning of a primary character; in A Separation, a miscarriage.) Farhadi’s preoccupation with consequences has clear precedent in theatre and literature, but it makes him unique in the landscape of contemporary cinema. Whereas Hollywood screenwriters use escalating body-counts and toppling high-rises to raise the dramatic stakes of a story, Farhadi uses intimacy and psychological precision, combined with a Hitchcockian command of suspense.
Despite his abiding interest in the consequences of moral choices, Farhadi is deeply ambivalent about judgments of right and wrong or good and evil. As he explained in a recent DGA interview:
“This is the most important question that I have tried to address in all my films. This is the most important question I’ve had all my life. According to what scales, according to what system of weights and measures, can I recognize a behavior as ethical and another as not ethical? Are those scales and measures set by civil law…or are there religious laws that can accomplish this? Is it one’s conscience that can be the measuring device?…This is the greatest question of my life.”
The question has confounded moral philosophers for millennia: what makes an act or a person good or evil? Farhadi recognizes that our hearts, our laws, and our holy books provide different and often contradictory answers to this question. Take Emad’s decision in The Salesman to seek out the identity of his wife’s assailant. There are legal pathways for this, but Rana declines them out of shame. Customs of honor, some of which have their roots in religion, compel Emad toward revenge, as does his own sense of humiliation. And yet the pursuit of vengeance feels morally corrosive. What is he to do?
Farhadi’s dramatic answer to this questions mirrors that of many philosophers: he does not judge the act in itself, but meticulously observes the consequences. As Emad seeks out the attacker, finds him, and ultimately confronts him, Farhadi carefully modulates and rearranges our sympathies, never leaving a clear choice of whether to condemn Emad’s behavior or condone it. He pits different moral intuitions against one another, pinning his characters and his audience between their feelings, their traditions, and their intellectual sense of what’s right.
Farhadi’s moral approach has social dimensions as well. Consequentialist ethics are intimately tied to modern enlightenment liberalism ‐ and as such are a radical idea within the context of Iranian traditional society. Religious and state laws are rule-based (in the philosophical lingo, “deontological”), and therefore rigidly judgmental. Farhadi refuses this kind of judgment. Rather, he studies the way in which modern and traditional values compete within the heart of his characters:
“I always thought that in the countries that the modernity kicks in later, it seems that everything changes on the surface, the physical things change, but inside, things haven’t changed, really. This is always the challenge of this kind of community, to make a harmony between the cultural traditions and the modernity of modern life. Whether we like it or not, the modernity is something that comes from Western countries, and when the modernity comes to the Eastern countries, although they feel like they really need it, at the same time it shakes the very fundament of the culture ‐ there is always this challenge between the two.”
Paradoxically, despite the ostensible refinement of modern Western values, our popular cinema tells a different story. Unlike the shifting sympathies and moral ambiguity of a Farhadi film, American popular cinema ‐ and even much independent cinema ‐ is characterized by stark moral dualism. Heroes are heroes, villains are villains ‐ and the pleasure of condemning the villains is half the fun. As psychologists Dave Pizarro and Roy Baumeister have noted, superhero films are a kind of moral pornography, indulging our tribal instincts. Many “social justice” films also meet this description, pandering to our self-righteousness and attachment to outrage.
Farhadi rejects this approach in favor of across-the-board empathy. “In my opinion the most important thing that art does today is to create in its audience a sense of empathy,” he told Crave. He has even joked that he wants the word “empathy” on his headstone. To Farhadi, empathy allows us to recognize our own nature, good and bad, in all the characters onscreen, forcing the kind constructive reflection that allows us to improve. Here he takes a cue from Chekhov, who wrote that “man will become better when you show him what he is like.” One gets the sense, in The Salesman, that Farhadi is performing this process on himself: by reflecting Emad’s struggle to empathize with his wife’s attacker, a man who turns out to be very much like Willy Loman, Farhadi shows how challenging empathy can be even for the artists who strive to embody it. “This is a paradox that always exists in the artists’ lives,” he explains. “In their work they address subjects that they are not successful at doing in their own lives.”
Just as the themes of Arthur Miller’s play bleed into the lives of the characters in The Salesman, so now have the themes of The Salesman bled into Farhadi’s life. In the wake of the recent immigration ban, Farhadi will not be attending this year’s Oscar ceremony ‐ a decision initially forced upon him, then later made by choice. Explaining his reasons for declining to attend, Farhadi wrote:
“I believe that the root cause of many of the hostilities among nations in the world today must be searched for in their reciprocal humiliation carried out in its past and no doubt the current humiliation of other nations are the seeds of tomorrow’s hostilities. To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another is not a new phenomenon in history and has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity.”
It’s a fitting statement, but also one with clear echoes in Farhadi’s work. “Humiliation,” Farhadi noted elsewhere, “was central in both [Death of a Salesman] and my film.” Whether the mention of humiliation in his statement was intentionally tied to the film or not, it reflects the unified ideals of Farhadi’s moral conscience. One hopes that, in this sad circumstance of life imitating art, we can learn another of Farhadi’s lessons: “the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”