As an inherent part of daily life, movies have been a powerful medium for expressing ideas, communication, education, and forming collective awareness. However, aren’t there times when we should forsake the colorful, fantasy world of movies full of marvelous special effects and CGI, in favor of stories about real-life individuals who may teach us a lesson and enhance our ability to empathize with our fellow humans? It may be the story of someone you knew or someone you passed by unawares. It could depict a desperate young man staring out of a café window without even sipping his already-cold tea, a senior citizen in an aged-care center wishing for nothing more than to be loved by their children, a single mother trying to make a difference, a young man serving time in prison for a crime he did not commit, or poverty. Many filmmakers today aim to pay greater attention to such social concerns to portray the reality of everyday life, human nature, evil or benign deeds, wicked or honest decisions, mistakes, a moment of negligence, uncontrollable emotions, and generally anything realistic.
Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian director, actor, scriptwriter, costume designer and producer, is one of these successful filmmakers. His films have won several national and international awards since 2003, including two Oscars, a BAFTA, Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, the Golden Bear, the César Award and the Independent Spirit Award. Not only has he changed public opinion of Iranian cinema, but his films have successfully instilled in the audience a feeling of responsibility, honesty, humanitarianism, compassion, and mutual understanding. His worldwide collaborations with French and Spanish filmmakers and his national classics have also piqued the attention of cinephiles and critics. Farhadi’s films are well-known for being realistic and open-ended, to which he cites:
I think it is insulting to an audience to make them sit and watch a film and then give them a message in one sentence.
His films beautifully reflect the conflict created by cultural, economic, religious, gender and social class values among Iran’s diverse society. Contradictions and their impact on characters’ decisions are filmed so naturally that viewers unintentionally put themselves in the characters’ shoes, accompanying them on their journey, becoming involved in their problems, experiencing a whirlwind of emotions alongside them and attempting to solve their problems. More significantly, towards the end of the film, the audience is befuddled by the conflicting feelings they have been drawn into, and they must make a final decision: to go or stay, accept or reject, forgive or forget, tell the truth or simply lie, care or ignore. Farhadi describes his films as “real and tangible” by saying,
We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we would realize that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things.
The most well-known films he has directed are Dance in the Dust (2003), Beautiful City (2004), Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), Le Passe (2013), The Salesman (2016), Todos Lo Saben (2018) and A Hero (2021). Both A Separation and The Salesman won the Oscar Award for the best foreign language film in their respective years. His most recent film, A Hero, was nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for the best international feature film. Let us have a look at those three pioneering films to understand what makes them so unique that they could bring Oscars to Iranian cinema after such a long time.
A Separation (2011)
With 89 awards and 50 nominations, this drama garnered an IMDb official website score of 8.3/10 and was the first Oscar-winning film for Iranian cinema. As the title indicates, the plot revolves around a couple’s divorce due to worldview and ideological differences, which pose enormous problems for the family and everyone else involved. Farhadi, without a doubt, is the master of merging social and cultural diversity and displaying numerous notions in such a complex manner that awes the audience and stops them from discriminating between good and evil. I dare to argue that the following is the deciding factor in creating a difference and paving the road for his global success — as Farhadi says:
Classical tragedy was the war between good and evil. We wanted evil to be defeated and good to be victorious. But the battle in modern tragedy is between good and good, and no matter which side wins, we will still be heartbroken.
The duality and conflict between logic and emotion, as well as the helplessness to evaluate, overwhelm viewers from the start of the film and may keep them occupied for days. Nader’s wife (Simin) tries to persuade him to leave his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and emigrate with them rather than divorce her, stating that his father no longer knows him. Nonetheless, Nader says emphatically, “but I know he is my father.” It masterfully raises viewers’ consciousness, promotes self-judgment in the audience, and forces them to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and face the repercussions of their actions. The audience, bewildered by the film’s multiple dilemmas, keeps asking themselves: what would I do if I were him or her?
In his review titled ‘No rules can account for human feelings,’ Roger Ebert candidly wrote that “to untangle right and wrong in this fascinating story is a moral challenge. I would love to see the film with wise judges from American divorce courts and hear their decisions. Sometimes the law is not adequate to deal with human feelings.”1
The Salesman (2016)
With 13 awards and 27 nominations, this drama won the second Oscar for Iran. It tells the story of a middle-class couple who work as theater actors. Their idyllic life is turned upside down when forced to relocate and rent a house previously occupied by a prostitute. The wife (Rana) gets assaulted and her husband (Emad) seeks vengeance.
The film effectively illustrates the lives of the middle-class, cultural conflicts that the young generation have with the ruling system and traditions, and the humiliation that women and families suffer that prevents them from reporting such crimes to the authorities. Nonetheless, despite Iran’s traditional society which was, and in many parts still is, patriarchal and harsh, Emad (a contemporary educated person) demonstrates a calmer and more rational behavior towards his wife; yet he struggles to deal with the situation, which creates distance between the spouses. Moreover, in the scene where the rapist faces his own family, the audience sees a relatively traditional family with standards and values, yet built on lies and secrets.
On the other hand, themes around cultural activities, such as in the theatrical play based on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, introduce students to masterpieces such as the film The Cow which is based on a tremendous Persian literary work with Marxist social alienation subject matter, symbolizing the current generation’s attempts to develop and create a different world despite all of the difficulties in Iran. Just like the atmosphere Farhadi has created in A Separation, in The Salesman audiences experience contradicting emotions and cannot determine who is to blame. They find themselves drifting amid an ocean of emotions from hatred to sympathy to fury and disappointment.
A Hero (2021)
Farhadi’s chosen film to represent Iran at the 2022 Academy Awards has already won two awards, including ‘Cannes Grand Prix,’ and has been nominated in seven other categories. In the film’s initial screening at the Cannes festival, Farhadi and the crew received a lengthy standing ovation, which is an honor for Iranians and Iranian art all over the world.
The storyline is about a young man who comes out of prison for two days to find his creditor and persuade him to retract his complaint. However, fate has other plans for him and things go south when he attempts to explain why he did not spend the bag of money his girlfriend found and instead returned it to its owner. As Farhadi remarked on the red carpet:
There is never a clear dividing line between good and evil and every single decision or action may shift the trajectory of one’s life from villain to hero or vice versa.
1 Ebert, R. 25 January 2012. No rules can account for human feelings: review of A Separation.