Best Books of 2016
Review of "Rothko's Rooms"

Movie Review: "The Salesman"

Salesman2What a great movie, masterful in pace and plot twists, with multi-dimensional characters who, as a bonus, provide a glimpse of insight into life in today's Iran. The end drags on a little, which I felt was to give the Iranian censors the ending that would allow the movie to be distributed, and it is done in such a way that you can guess which ending the director probably wanted for his movie. (I'll give you a hint: good storytellers don't go to the same well twice.) Director Asghar Farhadi highly deserves his award at the Cannes Festival for Best Screenplay and his movie's nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Leading man Shahab Hosseini also deserves a nuanced performance that fully warranted Hosseini's Best Actor Award at Cannes.

You can read the review on here and that by the New York Times there (it's a NYT Critics' Pick). I'm not going to attempt a review that rivals theirs, but I wanted to point out how filmmakers today can still produce remarkable movies on low budget - and those filmmakers don't need special effects, or a MFA in screenwriting, to succeed in the business. And I wonder, when I watch such an amazing movie like The Salesman, whether it is still possible for an American filmmaker to produce a movie like this, or whether we are condemned to praising terrible indie movies that become in turn highly acclaimed by the critics (I think for instance of the mediocrity of an indie hit like Don't Think Twice. I was also massively underwhelmed by Boyhood two years ago). The Salesman is also far superior to the media darling Manchester-by-the-Sea, which I mention because they have similar qualities as low-key family dramas. In fact, the only movie that awed me so in recent memory is the Russian movie Leviathan. Those foreign filmmakers have more to teach American ones than American ones are necessarily willing to admit.

The movie theater was almost empty when I saw the movie on Friday night, and I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that the movie is not in English (although it is subtitled.) I attended a performance of Donizetti's opera Elisir d'amore at SMU Meadows School for the Performing Arts earlier this week and the room was full of friends and family members who had come to support the amazing SMU undergraduates singing in Italian as if it were their native language. At intermission I heard more than one teen (sibling?) complain to the grown-ups nearby that it was hard to understand what was going on, although the performance was supertitled. It was not that difficult to follow along, especially an opera like Elisir d'Amore, where you can guess the narrative from reading the synopsis beforehand and looking at the singers, even if you don't understand what they're saying (another teen said: "The only word I understood was 'amore'.")

This came to mind in the context of Salesman because I think that Americans who only want to watch entertainment in English deprive themselves of key opportunities to watch superior movies or live performances, which would in turn help them make better works of art for those of us who don't care for grand-guignolesque car chases or robot monsters about the future. I'm not saying watching foreign films is always easy, even with subtitles - when I was on sabbatical in Boston I once watched a (mostly in black-and-white) Polish documentary about theater in Poland at ArtsEmerson -- it was the U.S. premiere of Andrzej Wadja’s The Possessed Years Later, a documentary about his groundbreaking adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils -- and that probably pushed me to the limits of what I was willing to do out of interest in art. But ArtsEmerson has further embraced this idea by inviting theater troupes to perform in their native languages. They presented Three Sisters by Chekhov - in Russian - after I left Boston and I would just have loved to see it live. Maybe I'll catch Uncle Vanya instead. It does help that I both love Chekhov plays and know Russian.

I don't know a word of Persian, though, and yet I could follow The Salesman easily. So I hope that people who are reluctant to watch a movie or a play in a language they don't understand will nonetheless go and see it. Americans have never shied away from English-language remakes (apparently a remake of German-language Toni Erdmann is in the works) but we will lose a lot of opportunities to understand other countries and cultures if we have to remake everything in English to bring Americans into theaters. On the other hand, maybe it would already be a good start if we could get the American filmmakers and the foreign-born crowd into the theaters to watch foreign movies. Maybe it'll aways be unrealistic to hope that the majority of American-born can find an interest in foreign movies instead of watching the Superbowl. (And of course there are exceptions, especially in places like Cambridge, MA or Seattle or San Francisco.) But maybe the American filmmakers can then learn from their foreign counterparts and bring those storytelling skills to their audiences, and the foreign-born can fill enough theaters to convince distributors to keep bringing those movies to America, and in that way directors like Farhadi can still have an impact on filmmaking today. Maybe that's enough. The Salesman, which opened in limited release two weeks ago, has grossed so far about $350,000 in the U.S. At $10 a ticket [$8 for matinees, $11 at full price], that's about 35,000 people in the U.S. who have seen it so far, and can appreciate what a remarkable film it is. Oscar winner A Separation, also from Farhadi, ultimately grossed $6,700,000 (or about 670,000 movie-goers) and probably approximates the U.S. market size for a movie in Persian. Here's to hoping The Salesman finds its way to the remaining 635,000. The movie deserves it.


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