How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

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Secrets and Lies in The Past

Father and son wrestle with the past.

Father and son wrestle with the past.

A troubled young girl is always looking at the past over her shoulder.

A troubled young girl is always looking at the past over her shoulder.

Asghar Farhadi’s simmering and subtle The Past opens under brilliantly conceived layers bathed in quiet – a hallmark of his searing talkies.  An Iranian man we later learned is named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is looking for his luggage on one side of the glass at the Paris airport while a French woman we later learned is named Marie (Bernice Bejo) is trying to get his attention from her side of the glass.  It’s a silent film moment, all the more clever on Farhadi’s part as he must assume the international audience knows Bejo best from her role in the silent film, The Artist, a trifling flick that won Oscars in the same year as his substantive masterpiece, A Separation.  It turns out Ahmad is there to finalize his divorce with Marie, nearly four years after he left her.  Marie awkwardly brings him to her home (the home they presumably once shared) where Ahmad is happy to see Marie’s two daughters while shocked to find her new lover Samir (Tahir Rahim) living there with his young son (Elyes Aguis).  Marie is hoping, apart from the signing of the divorce papers, that Ahmad will speak with her increasingly distant teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and hopefully divine what’s troubling her.  What’s uncovered is best left unwritten by this reviewer, as to dive any deeper into Farhadi’s tumultuous seas would be a disservice to those viewers who should want to go into the film knowing as little as possible in order to derive the greatest pleasure.

The Past is a subtle powder-keg of a film built moment by moment, character by character, slowly blooming into grand melodrama hung on secrets, lies and repressed emotions.  It’s a film about men longing to be wise and wanted and over-staying their welcome in dying relationships.  It’s a film about women acting on spite and overflowing with curious emotions that could destroy the world they’ve created.  It’s a film about children navigating the minefields of life and misinterpreting the complexities of adult emotions while succumbing to their own feelings of guilt and fear. Continue reading

A Separation, White Lies and Blood Money

Damn, Iranian domestic melodramas, where have you been all my life?  After a season of over-inflated Oscar-bait films (see The Descendants or The Artist) it’s nice to finally watch a movie that delivers the goods as advertised.  Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director of the simultaneously insular and universal film, A Separation, pulls off a rare feat by creating a painfully intimate look into the domestic lives of middle-class Iranians that touches on themes common to all of humanity and thereby highlighting the shades of moral ambiguity in us all.

* POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION *

Farhadi pulls no punches and throws us right into the thick of it from the start.  Simin (the sternly beautiful Leila Hatami) has worked tirelessly to secure visas for her family’s emigration – however, the dream of leaving Iran is not a dream shared by everyone in her family.  A flummoxed Nadir (Peyman Maadi – a modicum of bearded middle class frustration) can’t fathom leaving behind his Alzheimer’s riddled father to follow his wife to a new life abroad.  “He doesn’t even know you’re his son!” his wife screams heartlessly at him.  “But I know he’s my father!” Nadir replies.  It’s instant heartbreak within the film’s tightly controlled opening moments.  Continue reading