Interview | Asghar Farhadi and the Moral Complexity of ‘The Salesman’

The lines between right and wrong, reality and theater blur in the filmmaker's Oscar-nominated drama.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Just about anybody can tell a story. Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning writer/director of A Separation, makes you tell it with him. In one acclaimed drama after another the Iranian filmmaker presents his audience with contemporary morality plays but strips away all the easy answers, forcing audiences to either pick a side on a difficult subject – revealing, in the process, great truths about themselves – or to marvel at the complexity of a world in which so many people can be right and wrong about every single thing simultaneously.

His latest drama, The Salesman, is the story of a couple who move into the apartment of a former prostitute and, in a moment of great tragedy, fall victim to a serious crime. As they reel from the repercussions of sexual assault in increasingly divergent ways, Asghar Farhadi’s audience is invited to consider each point of view and to wonder what, exactly, their story has to do with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that both the husband and wife are performing on stage in their off hours.

The film, again, offers no easy answers and so I didn’t expect to get any from Asghar Farhadi when we sat down to discuss The Salesman, through an interpreter, late last year. But he did go into great detail about how, exactly, he used this film – and Death of a Salesman – to explore issues of morality, of family, and of the ongoing struggle for artistic empathy. It was an illuminating look at the creative mind behind one of the most nuanced films of the last year, one that you can now see for yourself in theaters.

Note: The following interview contains some SPOILERS about The Salesman.

Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group

Crave: The last time I interviewed you, about The Past, you said you were thinking about any idea that dated back – at the time – sixteen or seventeen years. Was this the film?

Asghar Farhadi: I don’t remember exactly that conversation but it’s possible, because this project was in my mind for a long time. From when I used to work in the theater I was holding onto this idea.

What aspect of The Salesman was it that grabbed you? Was it the moment of crisis, or the connection between actors and the events that shape their lives…?

It was more the relationship between the theater and real life. I had been wanting to work on a film or make a film where the more you went along the more the boundaries and real life and theater disappeared. I wanted the audience to at one point ask themselves, “Is this theater or is it real life?”

What was it about Death of a Salesman that made you want to make that the play [the actors perform]?

Once I wrote the summary of the story, that was several pages long, I started to look for a play that would be the play that these actors were working on. I reread a number of the plays that I had read in the past until I got to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and reading it for the second time I became very excited because it seemed to me like a mirror facing my main story.

It was interesting to me that there was an actor who was playing Willy Loman on stage every night and striving every night to create a sense of identification in the audience with this character, and that now in his actual life he encounters a character that’s like Willy Loman. And now this same character – who he’s striving to present as reasonable, or having his own reasons, and likable every night – he now has to behave with him in a way that ends up being unexpected. And the old man that appears at the end, in a way, was an Iranian version of Willy Loman and his wife, Linda.

Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group

It occurs to me that we think of artists – actors, writers, filmmakers – as people who can inject the world with empathy, and yet here is a film in which we challenge that by putting it to an extreme. Can you tell me about that process of the story?

In my opinion the most important thing that art does today is to create in its audience a sense of empathy. Creating empathy seems like an easy thing but in real life we sometimes can’t do it, we as artists. In this film your main character, Emad, appears as somebody who can be very empathetic with everyone, with his students, with his neighbors, with his colleagues. But in the situation he finds himself in his life he can no longer be empathetic. This is a paradox that always exists in the artists’ lives. In their work they address subjects that they are not successful at doing in their own lives.

And yet he also has an interest, a tendency if you will, to try to expose people. He has a student who has pictures on his phone, Emad wants to tell his father. He wants the Willy Loman character at the end to be exposed to his wife. Is that part of that positive quality, or is that part of the negative quality of his character?

This is the dark aspect of the character. It is what Willy Loman’s son, Biff, is throughout the play attempting to reveal, something to his mother. We see things from Biff’s point of view, we see his reasoning, but where he’s trying to tell on his father, we don’t like that. What we’re talking about is the notion of privacy and personal space.

To take vengeance on someone, the most awful thing you can do is to invade their privacy. To tell a student that, for something you think is wrong, you’re going to tell on him to his father. To tell the old man, for something that you think was something wrong that he did, that you’re going to destroy his honor with his wife and his whole family. This is what Biff commits throughout the play, which is why the most important theme that is persistent throughout the play is the theme of humiliation.

And yet the protagonists of this film are artists, and an aspect of being an artist is exposing hidden truths?

Yes, but not for revenge. Sometimes you reveal truths because of your respect for truth. But other times you’re revealing truth because of your own personal gain. This is not moral conduct.

Okay, and yet he does view himself… certainly they are the victim of a crime…

Yes but the person that has committed the crime is to be punished, not their family. Plus, the person to mete out punishment is not a crime victim. It’s the law that’s supposed to mete out punishment.

Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group

Your films often invite audiences to experience difficult situations from many points of view, and allow them to create a sense of judgment for themselves. Have you encountered unusual responses to this film, responses that have perhaps surprised you?

A great many. More than all my other films. A number of audience members take the side of the husband and like him because of his going after vengeance, so to speak. And when he slaps the guy they are relieved, they feel relief. And a great many others are disturbed by his seeking revenge.

In some way also you get to know your audience, what kind of audience you have. The audience member who feels content at seeing the revenge by the husband is somebody who himself would want to seek revenge, and the audience member who is on the woman’s side and doesn’t see this as the appropriate way of going about the matter, [by] seeking vengeance, is somebody who’s got a greater quality of forgiveness. In this way the film can produce a greater understanding for ourselves about ourselves.

In Iran, a couple – man and wife – had gone to see this film and she told me that when the man slapped the older man her husband was very happy and said “Bravo.” And what she told me was, “This gave me a new understanding of my husband.”

Was this element of… let’s call it a “social experiment,” always a part of the story for you from the beginning? Or did that evolve over time into something you wanted to incorporate into the story?

This is present in all my films. Although I don’t categorize or divide, what I try to do is [create an environment] for there to be differences of opinion among my audience. This is true also of A Separation. Many of the viewers were on the side of the man in the story and said he’s right to care for his father and that’s what matters most, and many other viewers gave the right to the wife and said she’s right to be concerned about her child, her daughter, and if we were in her place we also would be concerned about our child’s future.

What this does is create a conversation among the spectators after the film is over, and the consequence of this is that the film doesn’t end or disappear, that it carries on being alive as a result of the conversations, in the conversations. I don’t like to make a film that all of the spectators interpret in the same way once the film is over.

I think perhaps the one thing we can all agree on, particularly about The Salesman and A Separation, is that overall the events within it are sad, and that someone has our empathy.

What is true is that no matter how we look at this story we feel empathy for both sides. We may be one the woman’s side in A Separation but we are not against the man. We don’t dislike him, we also understand his [point of view], because the conflict, the dispute isn’t among a bad and a good. It’s not between the bad and the good to make it easy for us to make a decision, it’s actually a conflict or a disagreement between a good and a good. And this is why the film appears complex to you, because between the two good sides you’re striving to decide whose side to be on.

Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group

Is it easy for you in the writing process to keep that straight?

It’s very difficult. It’s the hardest part, because I have to constantly be watchful that the dose of empathy is not diminished for one of the characters on my account, that I don’t diminish the dose of empathy for one of the characters. Just imagine, there’s a person who has invaded the private space of a home, who has entered this bathroom. I feel certain that the audience is going to hate him, and I have only twenty, maybe thirty minutes at the end of the film to transform this hatred into empathy, and this is a very difficult thing.

One way you manage to do that is by making him physically frail. There’s an innate, at least, sympathy for that.

That is one thing, and the other thing is that he is a father. Once he’s a father and has a family we feel closer to him. When he confesses sincerely, “I gave in to temptation,” then we feel a little closer to him still. And so very, very slowly we get a little bit closer to this character.

I find many of your films are about the conflicts that occur when two well-meaning families – or more – interact and create hardships for each other, often by accident. What is about the family, in particular, as a story element that is so significant for you, that you need to constantly explore?

The oldest human relationship is the family relationship, and the totality of humanity’s experience about the family is greater than any other experience. But it’s as if each time a new family is formed, none of this vast treasury of experience is of any service or use to them. It’s as though each time a man and a woman begin a family relationship the odometer is set at zero again.

And that’s why, in my opinion, it’s like an ocean that you can wade into again and again, and always find something new. People are extremely similar to each other but the relationships of couples don’t resemble each other. You can never say “this husband and wife are like that husband and wife,” but you can say “this man resembles that man.” It’s as though when they are placed side-by-side the compound becomes something very strange and different.

Top Photo: Maarten de Boer / Getty Images Portrait

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.