Leila Hatami and Payman Maadi in ‘A Separation’ (Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Suspense in Real Life

The films of Asghar Farhadi

The unsettling start of Asghar Farhadi’s 2016 film, The Salesman, shows the residents of a Tehran apartment complex frantically evacuating as the building begins to crack and sway. It’s no earthquake but a collapse caused by shoddy design and a nearby construction project that has undermined the structure’s stability. This ominous event prefigures the fate of the film’s central couple, Emad and Rana, whose life is about to crack open, thanks to an unexpected crisis that finds a fault line in their marriage and exerts seismic pressure.

Farhadi’s films, unlike that apartment complex, are extremely well built—closely observed studies of marriages and families under duress. In the past decade and a half, the director has emerged as a celebrated chronicler of life in his home country, Iran, winning an array of awards including last year’s Grand Prix at Cannes for his most recent film, A Hero. His work resonates with professional critics and popular audiences alike. Fellow director Mike Leigh, interviewing Farhadi in November for the British Film Institute (BFI), introduced him as “one of our greatest directors,” praising his “extraordinary ability to put real people on the screen in a real way.”

The image of Iran in the United States remains shaped by the long-ago hostage drama and our preoccupation with the mullahs. In fact, Iran has a large, educated middle class, and the tensions and paradoxes posed by a theocratic regime ruling over a cosmopolitan populace have informed such contemporary Iranian filmmakers as Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, Dariush Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Farhadi himself. Assessing the director’s work in a 2014 book, critic Tina Hassannia described a “documentary-like social realism” that addresses “the complexities of everyday life in contemporary Iran, with a particular focus on the ways in which diverse perspectives are embedded within social structures such as class and gender.” 

While the complexity of contemporary Iran lends material to Farhadi’s films, it doesn’t account for how his innocuous domestic stories gather such propulsive power. During the BFI interview with Farhadi, Mike Leigh compared the Iranian director to Hitchcock. “Actually, you are the master of suspense in real life,” Leigh said. “We sit on the edge of our seat in all your films.” Those films are all of a piece; you can jump into Farhadi’s oeuvre pretty much anywhere and get the physics of it, a universe structured by suspicion and doubt, and maintained through interrogation and blame.

His starting point is typically one of settled marital acrimony, with festering disagreements that play out beneath the judgmental eye of children. It’s rare to see a kiss between spouses in Farhadi; the intimacy he explores is not affection but argument—vehement skirmishes in the enclosed spaces of cars, apartment kitchens, and offices. A surly teenage daughter casts a pall over the breakfast table; a distressed mom locks her unruly four-year-old in his room as he pounds away at the door: the sympathy on offer in his movies arises from an acute rendering of the maddening pressures of family life. You recall the many times as a parent that you wanted to tear your hair out.

A plot summary of a Farhadi film sounds like melodrama—yet it doesn’t feel that way when you watch.

Into this familial volatility Farhadi throws the lit match of a complicating event—an altercation with a homecare worker, a lost or stolen handbag, a break-in—that starts an implacable undoing. In the director’s vision of things, chaos rumbles beneath the surface of our lives; any stability in a marriage, family, or community is an illusion readily demolished by an irruption of evil—evil, in the Shakespearean sense of malicious fateful event. 

Farhadi won attention in 2006 with his first international release, Fireworks Wednesday, a disconcerting study of an anxious woman convinced, rightly or wrongly, that her husband is having an affair with a neighbor. But it was with About Elly (2009) that he achieved his breakthrough. The film follows a group of recently graduated law students—three couples, plus one newly divorced friend—headed for a holiday at the shore, taking along their gaggle of little kids as well as a young acquaintance, Elly, invited as a date for the divorced friend. The high spirits of a larky group idyll evaporate when Elly vanishes on the second day. Did she drown? Run away? The mystery is compounded, and the distress amplified, when the friends learn that Elly is engaged to someone else, that her presence there was a betrayal of him, that the woman in their group who invited Elly knew it all along, and that the group must now contact the fiancé about her disappearance.

Farhadi, who as a young man failed to gain admission to film school and attended drama school instead, has described theater—Ibsen and Chekhov in particular—as his first love, and About Elly proceeds theatrically, as the friends heatedly scrutinize every action that could conceivably have contributed to Elly’s disappearance. You left the kids alone with Elly! You chose a villa by the water! Did you do something to offend her and make her run off? Why did you invite Elly in the first place? Farhadi is a master of the group meltdown; part of the power of his movies lies in the incremental way he pushes a couple, family, or group of friends from bewilderment to irritation and doubt, then to accusation, and finally to raging rancor. The blame game turns About Elly into a classic falling-out among thieves.

Still from ‘About Elly’ (Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo)

And yet, what crime has this group committed? Farhadi’s movies focus less on events themselves than on repercussions. Homo accusator: being human, he seems to say, means existing in permanent readiness to offload guilt and angst onto others by lashing out. Taken together, his dramas pose something like a theology of blame. The rampaging recriminations of his mostly secularized protagonists exist in implicit contrast with the certitudes of the pious, God-centered society around them. If you hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t be here! Lacking a transcendental answer to the problem of evil, his flailing protagonists double down on human agency. 

The director has credited About Elly with helping him discover falsehood and deception as central themes, and from that film onward he invariably brings his protagonists to a point at which they must lie in order to get themselves out of a hole they have inadvertently dug. Almost without fail, they only dig the hole deeper. This fateful action amplifies suspense by drawing us into a queasy recognition. Farhadi’s films pose nightmares of culpability of the kind that you are always relieved to wake up from, and that give his seemingly pedestrian scenarios their tinge of dread.

 

Farhadi consolidated these motifs and preoccupations in a pair of Oscar-winning films remarkable for their stealthy power. The first was A Separation (2011), his quietly harrowing study of a domestic incident that spirals out of control. A surprise hit, the film earned $25 million at the global box office, helping it become the first Iranian movie to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

A Separation charts the travails of Simin and Nader, a Tehran couple bitterly torn between her wish to restart their life abroad and his commitment to caring for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Caught in the middle is their daughter, Termeh. When Simin files for divorce and moves out, Nader hires a young woman, Razieh—pious, poor, and several months pregnant—to care for his father. The old man is prone to wandering off, and one day when Razieh slips out to do an errand, she restrains him by tying his wrist to a bedpost. Returning unexpectedly to discover his father tied to the bed, Nader berates Razieh, in the process accusing her (falsely, it turns out) of stealing money from the apartment. In the ensuing argument, he attempts to shoo her out the door—whereupon she falls down several stairs, and later suffers a miscarriage. Thorny questions arise. Did Nader actually push Razieh, or did she stumble? And did he know about her pregnancy? The contretemps sets off a conflict with Razieh’s hotheaded husband, and eventually results in criminal charges against Nader.

A plot summary of a Farhadi film sounds like melodrama—yet it doesn’t feel that way when you watch. Admirers invariably call his movies “nuanced,” and part of his skill lies in tempering melodramatic plots and ethical dilemmas with subtle character portrayal. In Farhadi, selfish characters do unexpected good deeds, and solid ones stumble. This is melodrama without heroes and villains, and skillfully camouflaged by a social realism that offers a finely detailed look at family life. Small things win our sympathy in A Separation: Nader’s frustration at trying to use the washing machine for the first time; Simin’s furious aggravation at a stuck zipper on a suitcase as she is trying to leave. Farhadi is interested in the opposite of grace under pressure. He is the chronicler of basically good people doing small bad things that then require other, bigger bad things. 

This cascading calamity gives A Separation its almost shocking force. For Nader, a small lie deployed to protect himself as he recounts his argument with Razieh leads ultimately to the threat of a lost job and livelihood, forcing more lies. Upping the stakes are the financial and emotional stringencies of marital separation in a world where people are just barely making ends meet. There is no room for error in these lives. One stupid little thing, and soon Nader’s world lies in ruins. A Separation is a finely calibrated pressure machine; halfway through, I had to take a break from the sheer intensity of it.

Farhadi’s films implicitly offer a brief for the values and habits of liberalism: skepticism, ambiguity, and the humility of withholding judgment in the face of how little we know.

The director’s exploration of calamity continued with The Salesman, another taut marital drama resting on a web of dire happenstance. Emad and Rana are a childless couple starring in a community-theater performance of Death of a Salesman. When their apartment building is condemned, leaving them in urgent need of housing, a friend finds them a flat whose tenant has precipitously moved out for unknown reasons. A few nights later, Rana, home alone and showering, is assaulted by an intruder who leaves behind car keys and a cell phone when he flees. The movie records the reverberations of this seemingly random attack. Rana is traumatized, while Emad—an even-tempered high-school teacher—goes digging into the assault. Things grow sinister when he pieces together that the former tenant was a prostitute. Bit by bit he grows obsessed with discovering who attacked his wife—and when he finally does, the discovery takes him to a still darker place. 

The Salesman teems with things said or done in the heat of the moment and soon regretted. Reviewing the film for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane called Farhadi “a master of disorientation,” and the contending perspectives he builds into his narratives defy our wish for a definitive take on his characters or their fateful decisions. When the identity of the intruder is finally revealed, we feel loathing for the man…followed by pity at his cringing miserableness…followed by doubt about our own pity…followed by second thoughts about the harshness of Emad’s treatment of him. It’s exhausting.

Part crime mystery, part marital drama, part ethical seminar, The Salesman arrays characters in a thought experiment designed to raise abstract questions—about judgment, righteousness, responsibility, truth. Farhadi has spoken of his conscious desire to “trigger discussion and debate” in an audience. When, if ever, is it acceptable to lie about something in order to effect good? At what point does justice become unseemly revenge? In film after film Farhadi structures ethical inquiries without cost either to the credibility of his stories or the humanity of his characters. His genius, and the subtle power of his movies, reflect his ability to be, cinematically, both mind and body—to present abstract ideas fully fleshed out in engrossingly real lives.

 

Anyone familiar with Farhadi’s work will know that the title of his newest film, A Hero, can only be ironic. Whatever the virtues of his flawed and flailing characters, they are never quite heroes. The new movie explores not the character of a hero, but the manufacturing of one.

The fable-like setup follows Rahim, a young man staying with his sister during a three-day leave from debtors’ prison, where he’s being held for failing to pay off a sizable debt to his churlish ex-brother-in-law, Bahram. Rahim’s girlfriend, Farkhondeh, welcomes him with a handbag she has found—its strap broken—in the road by a bus stop. Its contents include seventeen gold coins. Rahim goes to a gold dealer to sell them; but offered a sum less than half his debt, he declines. Back home, after his sister discovers the bag and—worried he has stolen it—interrogates him about it, Rahim decides to do the right thing and find its owner. He posts notices around the bus stop, and the next day a woman materializes and, with weepy gratitude, claims the bag.

As always in Farhadi, these happenstance events trigger fateful consequences. They begin when administrators at the debtors’ prison decide to publicize the good man in their midst: a man who owed money, yet gave up money nonetheless. “What you did was beautiful,” the prison director says. “It was a noble gesture.” They call the press, and TV and magazine stories follow in short order. A local charity takes notice, organizing a fundraiser to help pay Rahim’s debt, and later—at a public ceremony where Rahim sits beatifically beaming—offering him a job. The pariah has become a paragon.

Then trouble begins. The second half of A Hero undoes Rahim’s redemptive act, weakening it from within and chipping at it from without. In interviews, the hero begins to embroider his story in ways that accentuate his selflessness. Meanwhile, rumors spread on social media—possibly spurred by his creditor, Bahram, who is being pressured to forgive the debt. Did prison authorities gin up the whole story to burnish their image following the recent suicide of another inmate? Did Rahim actually have the gold coins before he said he found the handbag? Was the woman who claimed them herself a thief, somehow in cahoots with Rahim? “He made up this story to fix his reputation,” Bahram asserts, “and that’s all this is.”

Saleh Karimaei (left) and Amir Jadidi (right) in ‘A Hero’ (Pictorial Press LTD/Alamy Stock Photo)

Is it? Behind his marquee good looks and a gleaming smile that alternates with hangdog glumness, Rahim remains opaque, and this opacity conduces to speculation regarding his motives and, well, his heart. When a fellow inmate berates him for helping the prison authorities “cover up their shit,” we too wonder, why did he decide to give the money back? What’s he trying to get? Personal questions provoke philosophical ones. As Rahim receives first accolades and then a job offer, redemption becomes compensation, and his seemingly impulsive act of goodness begins to look shrewd. Does this change its meaning? Are good deeds vitiated by ulterior motives? Bahram, in turn, bluntly raises the question: Should Rahim be celebrated simply because he refrained from stealing the gold? “Where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?” Bahram asks, exasperated, when the charity urges him to forgive Rahim’s debt. And then there are Bahram’s own travails. He discloses that in order to pay off the loan shark Rahim owed money to, he had to sell precious family jewelry. “Now he’s a hero and I’m the bastard creditor? What about my goodness?”

Where most contemporary directors subsume the ethical into the psychological (take Maggie Gyllenhaal’s recent The Lost Daughter, for instance, in which the theft of a child’s doll has no ethical dimension at all, serving only to illuminate the inner struggles of the protagonist), Farhadi once again keeps ethical considerations front and center. Bit by bit, meanwhile, Rahim’s redemption falls apart, as suspicions are fed by social-media rumors, and the same players who opportunistically manufactured his redemptive story now run from it. Lionization becomes vilification, leaving us to sort out the truth. That’s never easy in a Farhadi movie, where even the basics of what happened in any event, let alone the workings of the human heart, remain inscrutable. An hour into A Hero, we may begin to doubt what we saw at the start. What exactly did happen, for instance, when Rahim took the coins to the gold dealer?

In his interview with Mike Leigh, Farhadi discussed the discovery, early in his career, of how “details can cause a disaster.” What he meant was a disaster of interpretation—the way a small utterance or action, innocuous-seeming at the time, may loom large in light of a subsequent crisis. While only some of his films portray an actual crime, all his films are investigations: of actions committed in the heat of a moment, of half-truths and evasions, of feckless attempts at undoing damaging errors. What’s both riveting and unsettling in these relentless inquiries is how we ourselves are implicated. There are plenty of directors—from Lars von Trier to Neil LaBute to Todd Solondz to Michael Haneke—who have built their cinematic visions on misanthropy. Not Farhadi. I’m hard-pressed to think of a director who portrays his characters this sympathetically while judging them this balefully. Eventually in A Hero, Rahim must either prove his bona fides to the charity group by producing the woman whose bag he returned, or lose his job offer. Unable to find her, he undertakes a fraudulent pretense. When the ploy goes south, our emotions go with it. The result is the opposite of catharsis; it is a sickening feeling of complicity. Forgiveness in Farhadi’s movies is rooted in this queasy recognition. His characters may be errant, fearful, and self-serving, yet we are never allowed to pile on. Instead, we find ourselves steered back again and again into the large murky zone where so much human action and intention reside. We don’t judge them because we are them.

Discussing the origins of A Hero, Farhadi has cited his reservations about “the tendency to create heroes in a society,” calling it “a way for people to run away from their own individual responsibilities”—a carefully couched comment likely to resonate in a self-proclaimed revolutionary society like Iran, where a repressive regime cloaks itself (and its widespread corruption) in moral righteousness and a culture of public heroism. Up against the zeal of a rigidly dogmatic theocracy, Farhadi’s films implicitly offer a brief for the values and habits of liberalism: skepticism, ambiguity, and the humility of withholding judgment in the face of how little we know.

A Hero lacks the sharp focus on family and marriage of Farhadi’s other films, and as a result I found it less emotionally involving than A Separation or The Salesman. Yet it has a single-minded power. Exuding the timeless quality of a scriptural parable or philosophical dialogue, the movie juxtaposes the simplified narratives of virtue put out for public consumption—Rahim actually has a Certificate of Goodness, issued by the charity, that he carries around with him—with the tangled network of unknowables that is reality. In its obsession with motive, A Hero goes questing for the Great White Whale of Goodness, plowing through waves of opportunism and hypocrisy in search of a single disinterested deed. In the end, as if sick of mixed motives, including his own, Rahim decides on an action that is morally correct but that guarantees he will have to return to prison. The tradeoff makes for a downbeat ending, and as our disgraced hero shuffles ignominiously back to jail, it’s hard not to see him as a kind of sacrifice tossed on the movie’s ethical pyre.

It would be irresponsible not to close the discussion of A Hero with the absurdly germane backstory of the film itself. As has been widely reported, Farhadi is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over his film’s source material. In 2015 a young filmmaker named Azadeh Masihzadeh made a documentary film, All Winners, All Losers, based on the real-life story of a man who returned a bag of money he found while on leave from a debtors’ prison in Iran. Masihzadeh’s film stemmed from an assignment she got in a filmmaking class that Farhadi was teaching. Six years later, when A Hero appeared, Masihzadeh charged plagiarism, and sued for copyright infringement—whereupon Farhadi countersued for defamation. The defamation case was recently dismissed, but elements of the plagiarism case currently remain under litigation.

Both cases center on the question of whether the initial idea for the story came from Farhadi or was dug up by Masihzadeh herself. If this were a Farhadi film, we can imagine how things would go from here. Did the teacher know about the original source, even if he claims not to have? Did he and his student meet at a café somewhere and discuss it? And might we—or someone—be privy to the one damaging detail that can cause disaster? It would be very ironic if a court somewhere found the detail that would either implicate or exonerate this most forensic of directors. But life doesn’t always imitate art, and as any student of Farhadi’s intense, elusive, and ambiguous films will tell you, we may never fully know.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 
Tags

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

Also by this author
One Boy's Story

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books