Some 20 years ago, as I remember, during a question-and-answer session at the New York Film Festival, someone in the audience momentarily stumped the evening’s featured director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, by asking him about censorship in Iran. With neither the slightness of his frame nor the habitual severity of his features doing anything to conceal the satirical rage within, Makhmalbaf paused to savor the question’s naïveté. Then he replied, with feigned pedantry, “There are two problems. The first is censorship. The second is being asked about censorship.”
Times change. This year, the film that represents Iran in the Oscars competition, as determined by government officials, is Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which not only mocks the censors but quietly makes a visit from them into the turning point of its plot.
The mockery comes early in the proceedings, when some of the characters are rehearsing a production of Death of a Salesman starring the film’s protagonists, Emad and Rana, a married couple who lack ready cash but still have good looks, midlife vigor, and lots of cultural capital. Their troupe is working on the scene in which Willy Loman’s girlfriend exposes his adultery by bursting half-naked out of a hotel bathroom—but, this being Tehran, the actress has to be fully dressed and then (just for safety’s sake) buttoned and belted into a raincoat, which, to her great annoyance, prevents the play’s Biff from keeping a straight face.
The visit from the censors—mentioned but unseen—ensues after the play’s opening night, when Emad learns he’ll need to stay late so he can discuss with the authorities whether another three scenes must be cut. Rana goes home to clean up and wait for him; and though no one ever again talks about the late-night conference or blames anything on the delay it’s caused, the consequences play out for the rest of the movie. While Emad is busy talking with the morals squad and Rana is alone, someone breaks into their ramshackle rooftop apartment.
Although The Salesman isn’t always the subtlest film—when Emad and Rana rent the apartment and he says, “For once it looks like we’re in luck,” you know they’re screwed—the movie has a balance of reticence and outspokenness, of nuanced observation and easily deciphered symbolism, that is highly effective and by now familiar in Farhadi’s work. Unlike the giants of the preceding, heavily censored generation of Iranian cinema—Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi—Farhadi shuns nonprofessional performers in favor of experienced actors, preferably of the famous and beautiful kind, and shows no interest in formal games or narrative conundrums. He aspires instead to write well-made social-problem scripts—something like Death of a Salesman, for example—and is happy to invite the audience to discover parallels (no compass or map needed) between the situations in his movie and those in Arthur Miller’s play. It’s a conventional, accessible approach to filmmaking—you might almost call it a return to an Iranian “tradition of quality”—which in The Salesman tugs you into some of the same themes that Farhadi made so engrossing in his 2012 Oscar-winner, A Separation. You see and feel the fragility of marriage, the importance and impotence of book learning, the animosity that festers, barely concealed, between the classes, and the claustrophobia that results from being ruled by cops and theocrats.