Scenes from an Iranian marriage
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