Scenes from an Ira­nian mar­riage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

THE ACT­ING IS IM­PEC­CA­BLE AND THE DI­REC­TOR’S SKILL ... IS SEC­OND TO NONE.

(M) he Ira­nian di­rec­tor As­ghar Farhadi has emerged over the past cou­ple of years as a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional film­maker whose work in­vites com­par­i­son with Ing­mar Bergman’s prob­ing dis­sec­tions of mar­riages and re­la­tion­ships.

About Elly (2009), A Sep­a­ra­tion (2011) and The Past (2013) all deal with re­la­tion­ships once warm and close but now buck­ling un­der stress. The Past was made in France, but now Farhadi has re­turned to Iran with The Sales­man, which won best screen­play and best ac­tor awards at last year’s Cannes fes­ti­val, and the Os­car (his sec­ond) for best for­eign lan­guage film this week.

The film be­gins dra­mat­i­cally with an earth­quake that rocks the apart­ment build­ing where Emad (Sha­hab Hos­seini) and Rana (Taraneh Ali­doosti) live. They are, we feel, an av­er­age cou­ple; Emad teaches lit­er­a­ture at a high school and they both dab­ble in am­a­teur the­atri­cals — the film’s ti­tle is de­rived from the fact that both of them are play­ing in a pro­duc­tion of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Sales­man, Emad as poor, failed Willy Lo­man and Rana as his dis­ap­pointed wife, Linda. Their build­ing sur­vives the earth­quake, but barely, and they de­cide to find some­where else to live. A friend finds them al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion, a bit shabby but in ev­ery other way ac­cept­able. But there’s a snag.

The for­mer ten­ant left some be­long­ings in a locked room and re­fuses to col­lect them. Re­al­is­ing that ar­gu­ing with her is fu­tile, the cou­ple break into the locked room and re­move its con­tents to the apart­ment roof, but in the process it be­comes clear that the woman was a pros­ti­tute.

Emad seems more ap­palled by this rev­e­la­tion than his wife, but worse is to come. One night when Emad is out, but ex­pected home shortly, Rana leaves the door to the apart­ment un­locked. Emad, re­turn­ing home, sees blood on the stairs and finds his wife with a se­ri­ous head wound. Her as­sailant had pre­sum­ably been ex- pect­ing the for­mer ten­ant, and his vi­o­lent re­ac­tion to her hor­ror at find­ing a stranger in her apart­ment had led to the as­sault.

This sav­age in­ci­dent changes the cou­ple’s lives. Rana be­comes anx­ious and ner­vous while Emad be­comes ob­sessed with track­ing down his wife’s at­tacker. So the film grad­u­ally evolves into a kind of thriller, al­though not in the least like the sort of re­venge thrillers so com­mon in Hollywood films.

Farhadi also tan­ta­lis­ingly pro­vides links be­tween Willy Lo­man and the as­sailant (Baba Karimi), a de­vice that proves less con­trived than it might at first seem. The act­ing is im­pec­ca­ble and the di­rec­tor’s skill at com­bin­ing an anal­y­sis of a mar­riage with dra­matic ex­te­rior con­flict is sec­ond to none. The Sales­man is provoca­tive, chal­leng­ing, and thor­oughly grip­ping. Alone in Ber­lin is an adap­ta­tion of Ev­ery Man Dies Alone, a book writ­ten in 1947 by Hans Fal­lada, and tells the true story of Otto and Elise Ham­pel and their un­ortho­dox de­fi­ance of the Nazi regime. The film, a Ger­man pro­duc­tion made in English, is ded­i­cated to them but their names have been changed to Otto and Anna Quan­gel. The year is 1940 and Otto (Brendan Gleeson) is a fac­tory fore­man who has not joined the Nazi party — this is his quiet re- bel­lion against Hitler’s regime. Anna ( Emma Thomp­son), how­ever, is a mem­ber of the Nazi Women’s League, and she in­fu­ri­ates the high­class, leisure-lov­ing wife of a Nazi of­fi­cial by vis­it­ing her home and de­mand­ing that she be­come more in­volved in the cause.

Things change when the Quan­gels re­ceive news that their son has been killed fight­ing in France. This dev­as­tat­ing tragedy is quickly fol­lowed by the sui­cide of a Jewish friend and neigh­bour (Monique Chaumette). Protest­ing against a one-party state is not easy, but Otto and Anna be­gin to write mes­sages on blank cards at­tack­ing the party (“The Fuhrer mur­dered my son and he will mur­der yours”), leav­ing them in prom­i­nent lo­ca­tions around Ber­lin.

The film is, of ne­ces­sity, a som­bre af­fair and di­rec­tor Vin­cent Perez es­chews any glim­mers of warmth. Gleeson and Thomp­son are ex­cel­lent, but there will be those who will won­der why such a quintessen­tially Ger­man story was filmed in English.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters is that of Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), a po­lice of­fi­cer as­signed to the case and de­ter­mined to dis­cover the author of the provoca­tive cards; the SS makes it all too clear that he’s not pro­ceed­ing quickly enough for their lik­ing.

This is the third fea­ture directed by Swiss The Sales­man, Alone in Ber­lin, Aquarius, ac­tor Perez, and though it’s vis­ually hand­some it tends rather to­wards the bland, mak­ing what should have been a pow­er­fully emo­tional story about courage and self-sac­ri­fice rather too taste­ful and muted. Aquarius, the sec­ond fea­ture from Brazil­ian di­rec­tor Kle­ber Men­donca Filho, has been highly praised and won best film at last year’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val. Al­though the film has many pos­i­tive el­e­ments, I can’t quite share the en­thu­si­asm. The rel­a­tively sim­ple and straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive is ex­tended to an al­most 2½hour run­ning time, which seems ex­ces­sive.

The story be­gins in 1980 with an episode ti­tled Clara’s Hair. Clara (Bar­bara Colen), who has re­cently re­cov­ered from can­cer, is cel­e­brat­ing with friends and then at­tends the 70th birth­day of her aunt (Thaia Perez); the aunt re­calls scenes from her he­do­nis­tic youth. Part two, Clara’s Love, is set in the present.

Clara, now played by So­nia Braga the great Brazil­ian ac­tress from Dona Flor and Her Two Hus­bands and Kiss of the Spi­der­woman, is now a widow, living in the same low-level beach­side apart­ment where she has lived since she was young. Devel­op­ers want to bull­doze the place and re­place it with a high-rise, but Clara re­fuses to leave. Why should she? It has been her home for as long as she can re­mem­ber, her books and records and mem­o­ries are there.

The devel­op­ers, led by a smooth op­er­a­tor called Diego (Hum­berto Car­rao) be­gin to ap­ply pres­sure. In the oth­er­wise empty build­ing, loud par­ties and or­gies are held. Ter­mites are placed in other apart­ments. Ana Paula (Maeve Jink­ins), Clara’s feisty, di­vorced daugh­ter, is also ap­proached by Diego to per­suade her mother to change her mind.

Braga is ter­rific as the older Clara, still look­ing for love and some­times find­ing it, but the di­rec­tor’s ram­bling ap­proach is a li­a­bil­ity. There just isn’t enough con­tent here to sus­tain the film’s length, and though there are mo­ments of bril­liance, the con­clu­sion is a dis­ap­point­ment.

Sha­hab Hos­seini and Taraneh Ali­doosti in main; Emma Thomp­son in above right; So­nia Braga in left

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